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A Hitchhiker's Guide to Astrobiology

Looking for Microbial Martians

Space on Earth

Summary: At the Astrobiology Society of Britain Conference hosted by the University of Kent, thirty-five 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.

Martian Methane Ice

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.