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School of Environment, Education and Development

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BSc Geography and Geology
Benefit from a wide range of optional topics and practical trips on this combined degree.

BSc Geography and Geology / Course details

Year of entry: 2018

Course unit details:
Comparative Planetology

Unit code EART30232
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by School of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


In this course unit students will learn about the geology of the terrestrial planets and consider what we can learn about the processes of planet formation and evolution.  Content varies somewhat from year to year to reflect current areas of exciting research, but in outline will cover these areas.


•       The backdrop to the course is a consideration of whether our solar system is typical of solar systems in general, or whether only unusual solar systems are capable of supporting a technological civilization.

•       There will be a few classes on the environment of the early solar system where the planets formed.  This will include the evidence for the presence of massive stars nearby as our sun was forming, and the processing of material on the first asteroids as they were heated by radioactive decay of short-lived isotopes produced in those stars.

•       In discussing the planets, we will start with the Moon, where the dominant geological process has been cratering.  We will find out what sorts of structures impacts produce, and how they are used with the principle of superposition to establish the relative ages of planetary surfaces.  We will see how impact cratering has affected the surfaces of other planets and icy moons, and what the cratering record of the moon tells us about the bombardment history of the inner solar system.  We will compare Mercury’s history with that of the Moon.

•       Moving on, we will look at the histories of Mars and Venus, especially the contrasting fates of water , varying styles of volcanic activity, and the reasons their climates have differed from that of the Earth.  This will lead to a discussion of the features of the Earth that lead to its being able to support us, and how they arose.

•       Finally, we will turn to the icy worlds of the outer solar system, and try to see how geology works in an environments where "rocks" are made of ice and, on Titan, the fluid is a hydrocarbon.


In previous years physics and other students successfully followed this class in spite of a clash with another option on Fridays – lectures are recorded and available via blackboard as audio files with accompanying power points.  Students are encouraged to read around the subject, following their interests and starting from some recommended papers on the blackboard site.


Two years of study towards a BSc degree.  Willingness to learn relevant material from outside your discipline.


To allow students to develop an integrated view of the formation and evolution of our solar system and the rocky and icy bodies within it.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course successful students will be able to:

•       Describe current ideas about the origin of the solar system.

•       Describe and account for the major features of the surfaces of the planets and how we assess their ages.

•       Explain how interior properties of planets may be deduced.

•       Compare and contrast the internal structures of the Earth, Moon, Mars, Venus and Mercury, surfaces and, where appropriate, atmospheres of the Earth, Venus and Mars.

•       Account for variations among planets as consequences of varied chemical and physical evolution illuminated by know physical principles.

•       Explain theories accounting for the properties of Titan and the major Moons of Jupiter.

•       Have improved their skills in interpreting data and observations from a variety of sources.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 20%
Written exam 80%

Assessment methods




Written exam


AssessmentTake home exam (1 question from 3) with one week to complete (20%). This is usually shortly before the Easter vacation.1.5 hour exam (choose 2 questions from 5) (80%).

Feedback methods

Feedback is available by discussion of ideas in class and through occasional informal quizzes, as comments on the take home exam, via an online discussion board, and in an opportunity to submit worked past questions for general comments.

Recommended reading

Useful supplements to class material include...

Beatty et al., "The New Solar System".

Lunine and Lunine "Earth, Evolution of a Habitable World"

Vita-Finzi "Planetary Geology"

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 18
Independent study hours
Independent study 82

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Gilmour Unit coordinator

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