The (Astrobiology) Canterbury Tales

Earth as seen by the departing Voyager spacecraft: a tiny, pale blue dot. Credit: NASA

"Bifel that in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle"

-Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tells the story of the narrator’s travels with nine and twenty pilgrims, each working in a different trade, on a springtime journey to the Shrine of Thomas a Beckett in Canterbury, England. On April 18 of 2006, researchers from varied fields of science made their own springtime pilgrimage to Canterbury, this time to pay homage at the Second Conference of the Astrobiology Society of Britain hosted by the University of Kent . Five and thirty lecturers presented work in topics related to astrobiology research in the United Kingdom and abroad. What follows here is an account of their tales, along with some narrative aid from Society Vice-Chair Dr. Mark Burchell .

The Host’s Tale – Astrobiologists of the UK Unite!

And by popular acclaim, there was a clamor, ‘Can we become members, can we give you money and pay?’ And so the society formed from a spontaneous uprising…” Mark Burchell (2006)

And so it was that the Astrobiology Society of Britain came to be in 2003, during a conference to unite astrobiology researchers in the UK. Well attended by an enthusiastic crowd of scientists, Dr. Burchell recalls that the society literally formed from a "spontaneous uprising of conference delegates". These researchers shared a common desire to make "governments and funding groups take notice" of astrobiology. And through that first meeting they succeeded in having their voices heard. Afterwards an issue of the International Journal of Astrobiology (IJA) was produced, showcasing work by members of the society.

The IJA will again devote a special issue to the proceedings from this second conference of the Society, which was hosted by the University of Kent. The Society continues to move forward in promoting astrobiology, making sure that research in this field remains visible in the UK today. Says Dr. Burchell, “Astrobiology has now been recognized as tackling the significant question – life – with the prospect of delivering significant answers in the foreseeable future. If we are even getting to the stage where funding agencies are recognizing that then I think there has to be a bright future!”

The Clerk’s Tale – Virtually Changing the Way We Educate

I show dull slides of ‘This is a rock, this is a fossil, this is a rock structure’ — the students can now go and do 3-D virtual exploration of the sites. And that revolutionizes teaching!” MB (2006)

Astrobiology in the UK is a field that is gaining public interest in the UK, and the scientific community recognizes the need to participate in educational outreach throughout the country. In this vein, researchers from the Open University’s Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute presented their ‘Rocks from Space’ project, which is an outreach program for 8 to 11 year olds. This project gives young minds the ability to take part in a ‘Space Safari’ through virtual learning environments. They participate in 3-D virtual exploration of research sites and are taught to think in a "scientific fashion" about astrobiology questions like, "where to look for life, what the solar system was like, or what another planet with aliens would be like". Rocks from Space has been successful in communicating with "children at the right age so that science is still fun for them", says Dr. Burchell. Plans to expand the project are now underway.

The Shipman’s Tale – Cryptoendoliths on a Ship Falling from the Sky

Can organisms in rocks survive hitting a planet? The answer just a few years ago was no… And then people realized we had the ability to measure it. Charles Cockell’s work is pointing a way to a future which is getting closer to knowing.” MB (2006)

Travellers’ tales at the conference came not only from the attendees themselves, but also from microbes making the journey to Earth orbit and back. As part of ESA’s STONE-5 experiment , rocks containing microbes were fixed to the heat shield of a Russian Foton capsule. The material was exposed to the re-entry environment as the capsule made its way out of orbit and back to the Earth’s surface. The goal was to test whether or not the bacteria were able to survive the conditions of atmospheric re-entry in order to draw conclusions about the potential for life being transported from one place to another through space. The microbes in question are known as cryptoendolithic cyanobacteria, which are found naturally in rocks from many locations on Earth. The question that sparked the research is could these rocks containing cryptoendoliths be ejected from Earth and travel to other planets onboard rocky ships? Results from experiments like STONE may just tell us whether or not it’s possible.

The Merchant’s Tale – Trading Dust between the Planets

Chandra Wichramasinghi’s approach is the novel one – ‘Why are we going somewhere else, why are we looking somewhere else, when it will come to us? The dust arrives everyday’.” MB 2006

Tales from the conference also included the incredible story of dust that arrives on Earth from space on a daily basis. An astonishing amount of material is delivered to our planet every year in the form of cosmic dust. These particles have been collected in a number of ways, including high altitude aircrafts that capture the dust high up in the stratosphere. Lately this dust has been stirring up a bit of controversy in the astrobiology community due to claims by Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe at the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology . He believes that the cosmic dust may contain biogenic particles. Using balloons, dust was collected from 41 km above the Earth’s surface and then brought down for examination. Prof. Wickramasinghe is a strong proponent of Panspermia, a theory that early life on Earth may have been delivered from outer space on asteroids, comets or maybe even dust particles. However, many scientists feel that the bioactive components identified in these experiments actually come from Earth itself. While material does fall to Earth as cosmic dust, there is also dust from our planet that rises up into the atmosphere carrying small microbes with it. " If you’re an optimist it came from space. But it wouldn’t surprise me that these organisms, since they’ve got terrestrial counterparts, turn out to be terrestrial," comments Dr. Burchell, "it is the most likely outcome."

The Plowman’s Tale – Breaking Ground with Impact Craters

There’s a range of experiments where we use these guns as tools. They do have astrobiological implications – that is, to see what happens to life around a crater when an impact occurs.” MB (2006)

The tales of organisms travelling though space continued throughout the conference. Another aspect of these panspermia studies was related to how impacts affect life around the craters they create. When asteroids plow into the Earth they punch large holes in the ground with incredible force, affecting life in the area as well as any potential organisms or organics that are contained in the asteroid itself. To examine this phenomenon, researchers at the University of Kent use what is called a light gas gun to simulate impacts of various materials, including porous rocks filled with organic signatures or even living organisms. Another important aspect of this research is to determine what happens to life around the rim of the crater that is created, and to what depth and extent sterilization occurs under the extreme forces created by the impact. This tale is important for understanding how impacts could affect life on Earth, or potentially on places like Mars.

The Franklin’s Tale – “The Moon is Only Three Days Away”

You need an autonomous self-motivating gathering mechanism – an astronaut – to go look for examples of Martian meteorites, Venusians meteorites, and terrestrial meteorites — all on the Moon preserving a record of what these planets were like in the past.” MB (2006)

In recent years, the Moon has returned to the forefront of interest in space programs around the world. Much of the attention has been focused on human explorers returning to the lunar surface, but historically in the UK there has been little interest in taking on such missions. Some researchers however believe this should change. Lunar mission supporters like Dr. Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College in London believe that human explorers could aid astrobiology research on the Moon because their flexibility and decision-making abilities make them excellent tools for conducting astrobiology research. The lunar surface may not be a place that supports life as we know it, but there are a number of important astrobiology questions it can help us solve. The Moon may contain meteorites from the Earth, Mars and possibly Venus that were ejected from these planets during impacts with large asteroids. Rocks from the early Earth could help scientists understand the early surface and atmosphere of our planet, and maybe even answer questions about the origin of life. The Moon may also preserve particles from the Sun that could tell us about its aging and luminosity over time.

By combining the high sensitivity of space telescopes with the sharply detailed pictures from an interferometer, TPF will be able to reduce the glare of parent stars to see planetary systems as far away as 50 light years.
Credit: NASA

According to Dr. Burchell the opinion of some scientists in the UK is that, "recovering material from the Moon is vital, and the best way to do it after you’ve sent a few automatic probes, is you need the effort which comes from having an individual." Therefore, it is likely that humans will be required in the collection of materials on the Moon. Many of the important meteorites, for instance, could be buried below the surface of craters and require complicated mining missions in order to retrieve them. Such complex missions that require quick, on-the-spot problem solving are where humans can outperform their robotic counterparts.

The Physician’s Tale – Engineering Inspired by Nature

The biomemetic approach is that you copy what nature does already, so you let it do your R & D for you. Alex Ellery’s work is inspired by nature’s solutions through natural selection, and that makes his solutions to design problems as elegant as possible.” MB (2006)

Another story told about journeys to other worlds involved the exploration of planets using robots inspired by living organisms on Earth. The term for this is biomimetics , and refers to engineering based on nature. For instance, designing effective ways of drilling a hole to extract material from the ground can be done by copying the design and action of the ovipositor of a wasp. In fact, engineers are turning to all kinds of creatures in nature, from ants to flying squirrels , in order to design robots and instruments for space exploration. Biomimetics takes advantage of what nature has already learned over millions of years of problem solving.

The Knight’s Tale – Carrying the Torch in Europe

I can see a much larger European community, not rivaling the American groups and the NASA led ones, but being proper partners in taking astrobiology forward.” MB (2006)

Cancellations and funding cuts that have recently plagued the NASA astrobiology program are of obvious importance to scientists in Europe, and the conference in Kent was an opportunity for researchers to discuss the contributions they can make to astrobiology in light of the situation for colleagues in the United States. Historically, the astrobiology community in the US has been larger, but current circumstances provide an opportunity for European scientists to move into a more significant role. Dr. Burchell recognizes that "there is growth in every country (in Europe) of new astrobiologists to reflect where the money is going in the space agency and that reflects the scientific interest", and now "it’s growth time" for astrobiology in Europe. With the cancellation of NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder , for instance, there is a chance for Europe’s own Darwin mission to fill a vital role as the only mission dedicated to finding signs of life on Earth-like planets, possibly answering the question “ is that an atmosphere produced by biological processes?” Europe is producing a number of important missions throughout our Solar System as well, with current missions in orbit around Venus, the Moon and Mars. "These are the boon times" says Dr. Burchell, "the golden days for Europeans." This was apparent at the conference, where attendees not only shared tales of research results but also prepared for major upcoming missions like Europe’s ExoMars .

Tales Galore…

These are only a small selection of the travellers’ tales presented at the Second Conference of the Astrobiology Society of Britain . There was a wide range of talks and posters covering topics from astronomy to planetary science, meteorites to robotic bees… For those interested in the full story, a collection of these Canterbury tales from the University of Kent will be available in an upcoming special edition of the International Journal of Astrobiology , produced by Cambridge University (UK). Astrobiology Magazine will also be featuring more in-depth stories of some of these tales in the weeks to come.

Related Web Pages

Astrobiology Society of Britain