AbSciCon 2010 a Success

Aaron Gronstal: Astrobiologists from around at the world gathered last week near the Johnson Space Center in League City, Texas, to participate in the Astrobiology Science Conference 2010: Evolution and Life: Surviving Catastrophes and Extremes on Earth and Beyond. The official program of AbSciCon took place over four days from April 26-19. Early arrivals on the 25th of April were also treated to primer lectures on some of the scientific disciplines that would feature during the conference, as well as a panel discussion relevant to this years conference focus - 'Top Ten Catastrophes'.

Answering the questions surrounding the origin of life and the potential for life in the Universe requires an interdisciplinary approach. In their work, astrobiologists must include a vast range of scientific disciplines - from biology and geology to astrochemistry and astronomy. To help highlight how these different fields are combined in order to answer the scientific questions of astrobiology, talks at AbSciCon are organized into a multitude of sessions that occur simultaneously. The wide array of activities can sometimes be overwhelming as participants rush back and forth between rooms to catch up on the latest scientific discoveries; but it also highlights the diversity of specialties represented by astrobiology and today's astrobiologists themselves.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Exobiology and Astrobiology at NASA, and to celebrate this, the conference began with a historical overview of the past 50 years of research. The 'Greatest Hits' session featured topics like the contributions of astrochemistry to the study of life in the Universe (presented by Pascal Ehrenfreund), new insights into the infamous Mars meteorite, ALH84001 (presented by Kathie Thomas-Keprta), studies on the origin of life through systems biology and synthetic biology (presented by David Deamer), and an overview of evidence for the early rise of Oxygen on Earth (presented by Ariel Anbar).

The majority of research being presented at AbSciCon was covered in fifteen-minute talks in a variety of sessions held each day of the conference. The breadth of these sessions is too wide to list here, but a few of the topics covered included 'Human Exploration and Astronaut Health', 'Extraterrestrial Molecular Evolution and Pre-Biological Chemistry', 'Energy Flow in Microbial Ecosystems', 'Astrobiology and Interdisciplinary Communication', 'Results from Field Campaigns', 'Life in Volcanic Environments' and 'Impact Events and Evolution.' A complete list of the presentations is available as a pdf at: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2010/.

In addition to the fifteen-minute talks by scientists, AbSciCon also included more in-depth plenary talks, dialogs and discussions on some of the hottest topics in astrobiology today. The first was a dialog between Steve Benner and Robert Shapiro on the question, "Can we rule out spontaneous generation of RNA as the key step in the origin of life?", moderated by Nick Hud. Shapiro and Benner took opposing views on whether or not RNA could have been the starting point for Darwinian evolution on Earth. For years, the 'RNA World' that may have existed prior to the first living cell on Earth has been a focus for research on the origin of life. Shapiro, however, argues for a 'metabolism first' model, which focuses not on the specific set of ingredients for life, but instead on systems of energy flow and feedback in chemical reactions that could have produced 'organization' of molecules important for life on the early Earth.

A second dialog, "How Hellish was the Hadean Earth?", featured Stephien Mojzsis and Norman Sleep debating current scientific knowledge of conditions on the early Earth. Previously, scientists believed that the early Earth was a landscape dominated by volcanic activity. However, new research has shown that our planet may not have been so inhospitable early in its history.

The three days of AbSciCon 2010 that followed continued on the same model. Additional dialogs were held on both scientific topics ( "A Warm, Wet Mars?"; "Titan Versus Europa") and issues related to funding, administration and support for astrobiology ("Astrobiology Research and Funding"; "Planetary Science Decadal Survey Update"). A public program, 'Progress in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life: A Report from the Explorers", was also presented for AbSciCon participants and members of the general public on the evening of April 27th. Participants discussed the future of exploration in our Solar System and the scientific benefits of both robotic and human missions.

A new addition to this year's conference was the inclusion of 'Lightning Talks'. Nearly 300 posters were presented as part of AbSciCon, providing a quick overview of hundreds of specific scientific results and advancements in astrobiology. However, scientists who wanted to provide more information and discussion of their work were able to give brief, five-minute overview talks in the Lightning Talks. These rapid-fire sessions provided the audience with a distilled view of some key research that will shape the future of astrobiology.

The role of astrobiology in NASA's interactions with the public was also highlighted in sessions dedicated to education and outreach initiatives. Topics like "Diversity in Astrobiology Research and Education", "Astrobiology in Interdisciplinary Communication" and "Education in Astrobiology in K-12" helped showcase the importance of astrobiology in educating future scientists and the general public. This dedication to education was presented in outreach activities dedicated to individual research projects as well as more general outreach for astrobiology as a whole. Outreach was also being undertaken at the conference itself, with coverage on talks and sessions being provided by astrobio.net through Facebook updates and Twitter feeds. This provided participation from people who were not physically in attendance at AbSciCon 2010, and a venue for them to capture highlights of the event and relay their questions to scientists and professionals.

The program for AbSciCon 2010 featured the scientific work of some 2500 researchers in disciplines related to Astrobiology. Participants arrived in League City from around United States and every corner of the world, from Sweden to Australia, China to Brazil and Colombia to Japan. The amount of work being presented at this year's conference was immense, and over the coming weeks we will provide specific coverage of the science, technology and expedition results presented at AbSciCon 2010 on this site as well as the Astrobiology Magazine at www.astrobio.net. For a complete listing of the topics and talks of AbSciCon 2010, a pdf of the program schedule is available at: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2010/.

Please follow SpaceRef on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.