Europe launches into astrobiology
Posted: May 23, 2001

Is our planet an oasis of life in an otherwise dead universe? Twenty years ago, the scientific consensus was "yes, probably". Now it has shifted to "probably not" and the field of astro- (or exo-) biology is burgeoning.

This growth of interest is evident this week at ESRIN, ESA's European Space Research Institute in Frascati, Italy, which is hosting the first European workshop on exo/astrobiology. About 200 scientists from fields as diverse as astrophysics, geology, environmental sciences, biology and chemistry are attending. This week, they took the opportunity to set up the European Exo/astrobiology Network to coordinate their growing efforts.

Illustration of astrobiology search. Photo: ESA
For ESA, the aim of the meeting is to learn about the needs of this new scientific community and to inform it of the agency's future plans. "We decided to host this workshop to forge closer links between the growing exo/astrobiology community and ESA, and to clarify the relationship between us," said Paul Clancy from ESA's Manned Spaceflight and Microgravity Directorate and one of the co-organisers of the meeting.

Astrobiology is not only bringing disparate scientific disciplines together, it is also forging closer links between several directorates within ESA. The workshop was a joint effort between the Science and Manned Spaceflight directorates.

Manned Spaceflight has taken an interest in the field since the early 1990s when the first of three platforms for research into the effects of space on living organisms went into orbit. The third and latest facility is EXPOSE which is due to go on the International Space Station in 2004.

The Science programme's interest is kicking off in earnest with Mars Express, which will deliver the exobiology lander Beagle 2 to the red planet in 2003. However, the Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) which operated from 1995-98, has contributed much to the field by detecting water and many organic molecules in space. Rosetta, a mission which should help determine whether comets provide the building blocks of life, will also be launched in 2003, although it will not reach its destination, Comet Wirtanen, until 2011.

"It's good to see the European astrobiology community taking shape. We need them to support our future missions," says Malcolm Fridlund, ESA's project scientist for Darwin who also helped to organise the meeting.

Darwin, a mission to look for the signatures of life on Earth-like planets around other stars, is one of the cornerstones in ESA's future space science programme. With an estimated launch date of 2014, it will be the climax of the programme's current plans to look for life elsewhere in the universe. A complex mission, it will be preceded by two technology development missions, SMARTs 2 and 3, and possibly by Eddington, a mission to determine the proportion of stars orbited by Earth-like planets.

Herschel, formerly known as FIRST, is an infrared telescope due for launch in 2007, that will succeed ISO in the search for ever more complex molecules in space. Such molecules could have kick-started life on Earth and elsewhere.

In parallel with the efforts in the Science and Manned Spaceflight directorates, ESA is also proposing Aurora, a new programme of planetary exploration. "Ultimately, we'll be looking to further the search for life by sending human missions to Mars. We have to prepare now with studies and robotic missions because the programme will be very ambitious," says Paul Clancy.

The Manned Spaceflight directorate has already drawn up plans for an exobiology package to be incorporated on future landers. The package builds on the scientific goals of the Beagle 2 lander for Mars Express and extends the sophistication of the scientific analysis in the search for life. The package will carry a drill capable of penetrating up to 1.5 m below the Martian surface, for example. Opportunities to fly this package are being sought.

Earlier in the week, the meeting heard about the research effort in astrobiology in different European countries and the United States. France, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom are particularly active, having established either national astrobiology research programmes or formal networks of researchers.

The tasks of the new European Astrobiology Network have been agreed. It will hold regular meetings between astrobiology researchers, establish a database of expertise in the different aspects of exo/astrobiology, attract young scientists to the field, stimulate research funding from national and international bodies, promote the field to the public and forge links with its counterpart in the United States.

The network has twelve country members. All participants at the meeting voted for the council members and other officers. "We need to join our efforts in this multidisciplinary field. The newly created network will be a very powerful tool for increasing research productivity in astrobiology in Europe," commented Andre Brack, the new president, who is from the Centre de Biophysique Moleculaire, Orleans, France, and who also chairs the Beagle 2 adjunct scientists group.

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