Press Release

Arizona Regents Approve UA Astrobiology Center

By SpaceRef Editor
June 17, 2005
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Arizona Regents Approve UA Astrobiology Center
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The Arizona Board of Regents approved the creation of a center for the study of astrobiology at The University of Arizona today.

The center, called the Life and Planets Astrobiology Center (LAPLACE), will bring more UA researchers from various fields together to study the existence of life elsewhere in the universe.

“Astrobiology touches our most human desire to belong and to understand where we came from,” said UA astronomy Professor Nick Woolf, who directs the two-year-old Tucson “node” of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The Tucson astrobiology node involves the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) as well as the UA and is one of 15 such programs nationwide. It forms the foundation for UA’s new astrobiology center.

“Astrobiology asks the questions, what is life? How does it originate? What is the future for human life?” Woolf said. “Since the only life we know occurs in a planetary system, astrobiology also asks how planetary systems form, and what these systems and planets are like.”

UA planetary sciences Professor Jonathan I. Lunine said, “The university astrobiology program is an effort to use the latest space technology to understand where we came from and whether we are, as an intelligent species, unique in the cosmos. LAPLACE will expand the emphasis on astronomy, chemistry and planetary sciences to include researchers from other departments, including geology, biochemistry, molecular biophysics, and ecology and evolutionary biology.”

Regents’ approval for the university’s LAPLACE will significantly expand the study of astrobiology at the UA, said College of Science Dean Joaquin Ruiz. “What the new university center is all about is expanding over a much wider range of problems in astrobiology, to look in more detail at what it is that is required for early life,” Ruiz said.

“Astrobiology is exciting to me personally because I’m very interested in knowing how you form a planet that is habitable and then how life populates it,” Ruiz said. “But astrobiology is also very exciting to me as a dean because it’s going to produce very interesting conversations that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Astrobiology becomes the forum in which people from all these different disciplines creatively talk together.”

The details of how things assemble themselves and disperse, for example, is important in astrobiology, Ruiz said. But how life self-replicates and spreads has long been a basic question for biology, for physics and, more recently, for engineering. “Self-assembly of liquids in substrates is hugely important for the electronics industry,” Ruiz said. “Engineers would love to build structures that self-assemble when, say, you add a drop of water.”

In addition to new research, LAPLACE is expected to generate additional grant funding and spark interest from private donors. The center will also undertake fundraising to promote research, operational and educational outreach activities.

Woolf and Lunine will be interim directors of the university’s LAPLACE, Ruiz said. A new faculty member, an astrobiologist, will be hired and placed in a biology, planetary sciences, astronomy or chemistry department by fall.

NASA awarded the Tucson astrobiologists a $5 million, 5-year research grant in 2003. The team includes 22 co-investigators and collaborators: 17 from the UA, three from NOAO and one each from the University of California, Berkeley and Ohio State University.

There are four basic parts to the NASA-funded astrobiology program:

  • UA astrochemist Professor Lucy Ziurys leads research on the prebiotic compounds and complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium that are the building blocks of life. The research involves studies of prebiotic compounds and molecules already known in space, searches for new ones by laboratory experiments and follow-up observations, and theoretical modeling.
  • UA Assistant Professor Michael Meyer and Stephen Strom and Joan Najita of NOAO study environments and conditions under which habitable worlds form and evolve. They use such state-of-the-art facilities as the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Gemini and Keck telescopes in studying gas content and physical structure of disks in the planet forming regions as well as model thermal and chemical structure of the disks. Mark Giampapa of the Tucson-based National Solar Observatory studies how magnetic activity leads to variability in the luminous output of sun-like stars, from “young suns” to stars the age of our sun.
  • UA Regents’ Professor of astronomy J. Roger P. Angel and astronomer Phil Hinz lead observations to directly detect and characterize extra-solar giant planets. UA astronomy Professor Adam Burrows leads theoretical studies that aim to learn about giant planet atmospheres that contain water and even whether these atmospheres support some kind of microbial life.
  • UA science education Associate Professor Tim Slater leads an education and public outreach program to incorporate astrobiology in general science education.

In 2004, the John Templeton Foundation and the Metanexus Institute awarded the UA a 3-year, $270,00 grant for a project titled “Astrobiology and the Sacred: Implications of Life Beyond Earth.” The project, led by UA astronomy Professor Chris Impey, is designed to stimulate interdisciplinary thinking and research on the implications of life beyond Earth. More information about the program is online at http://scienceandreligion.arizona.edu

SpaceRef staff editor.