From: University of Washington
Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2019
What are ocean worlds like? Is life possible inside a planet? What might a faraway technological civilization look like from here? Which planets warrant closer study, and why? And above all: Are we alone?
Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe and of the terrestrial environments and planetary and stellar processes that support it. To study astrobiology is to ask questions that cut across multiple disciplines and could take lifetimes to answer. The field gathers expertise from a host of other disciplines including biology, chemistry, geology, oceanography, atmospheric and Earth science, aeronautical engineering and of course astronomy itself.
These questions also include: What can Earth’s own species, and its chemical past, tell us about how to spot life elsewhere? How did the first cells arise? Can we map the surfaces of exoplanets? How can we motivate students to be curious about space?
Every two years, researchers gather from around the world to share and discuss their latest findings in a weeklong conference. Called AbSciCon2019 for short, this year’s conference will be held June 24-28 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue. It’s the biggest meeting of astrobiologists in the world and dozens of University of Washington researchers will attend and participate.
Public attitudes have warmed greatly toward astrobiology in the 21st century, prompted by exoplanet discoveries and exploration of other worlds in the solar system. Study of extraterrestrial life remains a hopeful science wryly aware that, as an old joke goes, it has yet to prove that its very subject matter exists.
The UW founded its own UW Astrobiology Program program in 1999, involving roughly 30 faculty and about as many students a year. “The program is a leader in both training the next generation of astrobiologists and in fundamental astrobiology research,” said Victoria Meadows, UW professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which explores computer models of planetary environments and will be the subject of a conference presentation.
“The Astrobiology Science Conference is the biggest meeting of astrobiologists in the world, and this year, members of the UW Astrobiology Program are playing a major role in conference organization, as well as presenting our research at the meeting,” said Meadows, who chaired the science committee for AcSciCon2019.
Here are several UW presentations and papers scheduled for the weeklong conference. Though the lead presenter is listed here only, most projects involve the work of several colleagues.
Many other UW faculty members will participate, either with reports on their own research or in support of colleagues or graduate students. These include ESS professors David Catling, Roger Buick, J. Michael Brown, Erika Harnett, Jonathan Toner, astronomy professors Suzanne Hawley, Woodruff “Woody” Sullivan and Thomas Quinn, among others.
Astrobiologists such as Sullivan point out that the field’s focus and scientific benefit is about more than simply hunting for life, though that is the key motivator.
“It’s about thinking about life in a cosmic context. And about the origin and evolution of life,” Sullivan said.“Even if you only care about Earth life, astrobiology is a viable — fundamental, I would say — interdisciplinary science that thrives independently of the existence of extraterrestrial life.”
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