Astrobiology Is Alive and Well
Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, opened AbSciCon 2008, the fifth bi-annual astrobiology science conference. His thoughtful view on life in the cosmic context set the tone for the vigorous and intellectually diverse meeting.
The international astrobiology community gathered together at AbSciCon 2008 to present new discoveries, to build collaborations, and to celebrate a decade of cross-disciplinary science. AbSciCon 2008 was hosted by the SETI Institute, and it attracted more than 675 scientists, students, educators, and journalists from 28 countries. Though dominated by attendees from the US, all the continents were represented, including Antarctica, where several researchers have conducted science programs. Astrobiology is a thriving international endeavor. Working across boundaries of traditional disciplines leads to new discoveries, as was evident in the oral and poster presentations at the meeting.
AbSciCon 2008 was organized by more than 100 scientists working together to develop major, plenary sessions, and chair 39 topical sessions. Drs. Ariel Anbar (Arizona State University) led the science steering committee with vice-chairs Drs. Tori Hoehler (NASA Ames Research Center) and Pascale Ehrenfreund (Leiden University). Many other scientists and educators organized individual sessions. I led a team at the SETI Institute to manage the local organization of the meeting. The Astrobiology Journal published the abstracts which are viewable online.
AbSciCon 2008 focused on three major themes:
- the astrophysical and planetary context for life
- the origin and evolution of life
- the search for life
Six plenary sessions plus focus groups and evening panels brought everyone together. Then, parallel topical sessions focused on particular research and education efforts from life in extreme environments here on Earth, to astrobiology and the exploration of the solar system and beyond. How do we protect Earth from contamination during sample return missions, and, likewise, how do we protect Mars from forward contamination with missions that land on its surface? What is a habitable planet? Who has discovered the earliest fossils on Earth? (The answer to that one continues to change with new field work.) What about the methane signature in Mars' atmosphere: geological or biological in origin? How can laboratory research inform us about the origin of life? How did life begin? Can we recognize alien life? And, of course, SETI: new tools, strategies, and experiments.
On Wednesday evening, the public was invited to an "Alien Worlds Safari" where a panel of leading scientists discussed the possibilities of life elsewhere on April 16.Drs. Jill Tarter, Tori Hoehler, Peter Ward, and T. C. Onstott discussed and answered questions about possible alien worlds: slime worlds to high-tech worlds. How can we find them, and can we recognize life on alien worlds?
In collaboration with AbSciCon and SETI Institute, San Jose State University hosted Dr. Antonio Lazcano, from UNAM, to present "Origien de la Vida" and "Origin of Life" on Thursday and Friday. At the main conference, Lazcano also presented a marvelous lecture as a tribute to Stanley Miller (Miller-Urey experiment) in a session on The Molecules of Life. In the same session, Dr. Gerald Joyce presented a lecture in memory of Leslie Orgel. Both Miller and Orgel were leading scientists in origin of life studies.
Is astrobiology healthy? A year ago, when the SETI Institute decided to host AbSciCon 2008, we were concerned that the meeting would attract only 200-300 people. Funding for astrobiology had been cut in half by the former Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Dr. Mary Cleave. I'm happy to report that we were overly pessimistic. Based on the participation in AbSciCon 2008, the astrobiology community is alive and well. I believe it has a vibrant future. Astrobiology attracts bright, young people to science: one-third of the attendees were recent post-docs plus undergraduate and graduate students. In the US, there's an ongoing discussion and much political hand-wringing about how to attract young people to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. It's evident to me that astrobiology is an enticing STEM pathway for students. I believe that astrobiology is growing, and has an exciting and inspiring future.
See you at the next AbSciCon meeting in 2010.
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