Essays should be between 1500
and 2000 words. The word limit
should include the text, figure
captions, footnotes, but not the
reference list (we are happy to see
lots of references). You will lose
marks for going more than 10%
over the limit of 2000 words.
The format of the essay is not
specified. You are welcome to
include section headings and
pictures. However, try to ensure
that they help to illustrate the
argument presented in the essay
and are not mere adornment.
Your essay should be written for a
well-informed but non-specialist
audience. The style (not the format) used in popular science magazines such as Scientific
American or New Scientist would be a suitable guide. Remember, you are not writing for
experts, so if you use technical jargon you will need to explain it. Refrain from using
formulae, but instead explain concepts in your own words.
Essays will be graded on:
• Degree of understanding of the topic (max. 6 marks)
• Quality and depth of research (max. 6 marks)
• Clarity of presentation (max. 6 marks)
• Outstanding original coverage of the topic (max. 2 marks)
Essays are expected to show evidence of researching the topic beyond the material
presented in the course lessons and textbook. They are expected to be more than just a
literature review – they should present the understanding of the subject that you have
The sources you use (websites, journal articles, books) should be referenced. You should
consistently use one of the standard reference styles. One style is to number references
sequentially in the text and include a numbered list of references at the end of the essay.
An alternative is to mark references in the text using author and date – e.g. (Sagan, 1987)
or Drake et al. (1965) – and list references at the end of the essay in alphabetical order.
“References” here are the sources that you have used to understand a particular point.
You may have also done wider reading that informs your general background – if you
wish, you may present this in an additional bibliography. Such a bibliography is optional,
and not a requirement. A list of references is a requirement.
If you use text directly from another source you must make it clear that it is a quote by
placing it in quotation marks (“ ”) and giving a reference to the source. However, you
should not make excessive use of quotes. Direct quotations use up word count, and (in the
main) will not contribute to your grade, because the essay will be assessed on the extent
to which you have identified, understood and interpreted background information, and then
presented your views on the subject – not on your ability to find relevant information and
Using text from other sources without attribution is plagiarism and is not acceptable.
Taking the text of others and paraphrasing it without attribution is also plagiarism. Using
text from other sources with attribution is quoting and will not earn you a good grade.
Read more on the UNSW Plagiarism Policy at http://student.unsw.edu.au/plagiarism.
Your essay will use the TurnItIn system for submission. Turnitin includes an automatic
set of checks and tests for plagiarism. Your submission will be checked against a large
database of material and tested for matches. The database includes all past essays
submitted for this course. Ensure that what you submit is your own work and that any
material from other sources is placed in quotation marks and the source cited. Copying
material from the web (even if you subsequently make edits to it) is considered plagiarism
and it is unacceptable.
TurnItIn is specifically designed to detect all plagiarism attempts! TurnItIn gives a
similarity score that indicates the percentage of the submission that appears to match its
database. While there may be legitimate reasons for matches (such as quotations and
references), we will be suspicious if we see high similarity scores and examine essays with
such scores closely to determine the extent to which the text is the original work of each
Essays are due before midnight on Sunday 24th January (i.e., the end of week 3,
11:59 pm, Sunday). They should be submitted online through the submission box
provided in the Assessments page on Moodle. You can submit it in a range of file formats
(MS Word, WordPerfect, PDF, Postscript, HTML, RTF and plain text). They cannot be
submitted containing scanned or bitmapped images of text – Turnitin will not interpret
that text, and you will not be graded on any text in that format.
Late submissions will be penalized one mark per day late. So (at the risk of stating the
obvious) do not leave your submission until the last minute.
• If you want to make sure your essay is in a format that TurnItIn will accept, then do
not leave submission until late on Sunday night.
• If you want to see your TurnItIn results, then do not leave your submission 11:30pm
on Sunday! TurnItIn takes time to do its processing, and you may not see its results
before the deadline.
• If you want to ensure you have a working internet connection for uploading your
essay, then, then do not leave submission until Sunday at 23:59.
Essay Topics — Choose one of the following
1. Space Telescopes
Explain why astronomers put telescopes in space. Describe the Hubble Space Telescope
and some of its achievements. How will the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope
differ from Hubble and what new science should be possible with it.
2. The Earliest Evidence for Life
Review the earliest evidence for life on Earth. What form does the evidence take and
where is it found? Discuss the controversies relating to some of this evidence and give
your conclusion on the earliest date at which we can be confident that life was present on
3. Follow the Water
Why do astrobiologists think that liquid water is the most important requirement for life?
What is the evidence for the past presence of liquid water on Mars? Is it possible that there
is still liquid water on Mars today?
4. Life in Extreme Conditions
Explain what extremophile life forms are and where they are found on Earth. In view of
what we have learnt about extremophiles discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life in
different places of our Solar system.
5. Key Solar System Planetary Missions
Choose ONE of the following space missions and give an account of the mission
describing the challenges it had to overcome and the mission’s achievements. Describe in
particular how it has influenced our understanding of the possibilities of past or present life
in the solar system.
• The Viking dual orbiter/lander mission to Mars.
• The Galileo orbiter/probe mission to the Jupiter system.
• The Cassini/Huygens mission to the Saturn system.
• The Mars Exploration Rover mission (Spirit and Opportunity rovers).
6. Exploration of Venus
Describe the history of missions to Venus and their achievements. How did we learn about
the thick atmosphere and high surface temperature of Venus and how did we map its
surface? Should we consider Venus as a possible site for life in our Solar system?
7. Gravitational Waves
On Feb 11 2016 the announcement was made of the detection of gravitational waves from
space using the Advanced LIGO facility. What are gravitational waves? How does LIGO
detect them and why is this discovery significant?
8. Small Solar System Bodies
Describe how space missions have been used to study small Solar system bodies (comets
and asteroids). What have we learned about these bodies? How might such studies help
us understand the origin of life on Earth?
9. Inside stars
Explain how helioseismology and solar neutrinos help to study interior of the Sun. Based
on two examples, a low mass star like our Sun and the star that is twenty times more
massive than the Sun, discuss how the internal composition of the stars changes during
10. Space mission to Pluto
The “New Horizons” mission is exploring the outer Solar System. Describe the objectives
of the mission and important scientific instruments on the space probe. Discuss what we
have learnt about Pluto after the closest approach to this dwarf planet. Explain how this
mission helps us to understand the processes of formation and evolution of the planetary
11. Formation of planetary systems
Discuss the early ideas about the formation of our Solar system. Compare our solar
system with other multi-planetary systems discovered in the last 20 years. Explain what we
have learnt about formation of planets from these discoveries. Describe the concept of
12. Kepler and TESS
Compare the strategy and objectives of the NASA Kepler mission and the new TESS
mission. Describe what observations are needed to confirm that an extra solar planet has
similar physical characteristics to our Earth. Discuss the role of the Kepler and TESS
missions in the search for planets like the Earth.
13. Habitability of Planets
Explain what makes a planet habitable. In the context of currently known extra solar
planetary systems discuss the likelihood of habitable planets in our Galactic
neighbourhood. Describe some examples of recently discovered extra solar planets, which
are suggested to be habitable and explain why.
14. Role model astronomer/astrobiologist
Science advances by efforts of large collective of collaborating people, but there are
outstanding individuals that we all admire for their role in moving us forward in
understanding our world. Choose your favourite contemporary (that is born not earlier than
the twentieth century) astronomer or astrobiologist that you learnt about in studying this
course, and describe their contribution to their field of research. Explain why this person
inspired you personally.
15. The Standard Cosmological Model
Describe the standard cosmological model (also known as the Lambda-CDM model of the
universe). What is the observational evidence that supports the model?
16. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence
Explain what is SETI and how it approaches the search for the ET. Explain why radio
telescopes are particularly useful in such a search. If we contact an advanced
extraterrestrial civilization discuss how likely it is that we will benefit from the encounter
through, for example, the information they may provide on advanced technologies, or are
we likely to suffer through the hostility of a species that competes for our resources and
perhaps our planet? Based on your assessment should we be advertising our presence by
sending messages to the stars or would we be better keeping quiet?
Factors you may wish to consider could include:
• Do we expect advanced intelligent species to be friendly or hostile to other species
(based on evolutionary theory, and the requirements of survival of such a species)?
• Has the human race developed more, or less, tolerance of different peoples and
cultures as civilization has developed?
• The historical record of encounters between colonial and indigenous peoples on
• Our record of treatment of closely related species such as the great apes.
• The vast distances between stars and the difficulty of physical contact with extra-
17. Manned Missions to Mars
There is discussion of sending a crewed mission to Mars in the future. Discuss the
challenges for such a mission, and how such a mission could be executed. Describe
possible benefits and drawbacks of such a mission in comparison with the previous and
future robotic exploration of Mars.