The Center for Astrobiology at the University of Colorado

About The Center

What is Astrobiology?



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The University of Colorado Center for Astrobiology proposes a coherent and integrated plan for research, teaching, and community development in astrobiology. Located at a major research University, our approach is to build on the substantial institutional commitments across the entire breadth of astrobiology, to assemble a team of scientists who together span the entire range of disciplines that comprise astrobiology, and to use this group to leverage resources via participation from a larger group of scientists who do research in astrobiology. Our Co-Investigators were included based on their cutting-edge research and their desire to help build a larger program in astrobiology.

Research. Our research efforts are divided into three distinct themes that provide a structure under which the individual research tasks are organized, spanning the entire range of astrobiology disciplines. In addition, we propose a fourth theme based on the need for astrobiology technology development connected to NASA flight missions. These themes are:

Theme 1: The origin and evolution of life on Earth. The evolution of life on Earth can be broken down into five qualitatively different processes: (i) Creation of appropriate conditions for a habitable world; (ii) the origin and early development of a genetic code (iii) the evolution of biochemical pathways; (iv) the evolution of microbial life; and (v) the origins and evolution of multicellular life. We have designed our biology theme to cut across this diverse spectrum in order to examine these fundamental issues in the development of life on Earth. This will allow us to gain a more subtle understanding of how life elsewhere in the universe might develop. Our explicit goal is to understand the major processes that governed the development of life on Earth, so that we can provide guidance as to the constraints on environments that will govern our search for habitable planets and life elsewhere in our solar system or on planets outside of our solar system.

The specific research tasks that we are proposing are: (i) Laboratory studies of the origins of an RNA world (led by Co-I M. Yarus). (ii) Evolution of biochemical pathways (led by Co-I S. Copley). (iii) Re-tracing steps towards a habitable world: The biogeochemical evolution of sulfur on the Early Earth (led by Co-I S. Mojzsis). (iv) Molecular survey of extremophile microbial diversity in hypersaline ecosystems (led by Co-I N. Pace). (v) Origin of multicellularity and complex land-based ecosystems (led by Co-I W. Friedman).

Theme 2: The origin and evolution of habitable planets. Understanding the potential for life off of the Earth requires applying our knowledge of what allows an environment to be capable of supporting life to our discoveries regarding the various environments that exist within our solar system and beyond. In doing this, we can look at the different environments that exist on planets (and satellites) in our solar system and ask which ones are capable of supporting life, what factors control their habitability, and what processes are responsible for the planet having evolved so as to have suitable characteristics. To understand what makes a planet habitable and what makes a planet non-habitable, we need to look at specific characteristics of individual planets as well as at general characteristics that might apply to all planets. We will approach the problem of understanding planetary habitability by looking in detail at the two objects in our solar system other than the Earth that are most likely to be habitable (Mars and Europa) and by examining more general physical and chemical processes that control habitability. In addition, we will examine the astrophysical issues to determine what processes govern the formation of planets to begin with.

The specific research tasks that we are proposing are: (i) Biogeochemical cycling and resources on Mars (led by P.I. B. Jakosky). (ii) Geological evolution and habitability of Europa (led by Co-I R. Pappalardo). (iii) The impact of atmospheric aerosols on life (led by Co-I O.B. Toon). (iv) Geochemical-microbe interactions in chemolithoautotrophic communities on Earth (led by Co-I T. McCollom). (v) Astrophysical constraints on the origins of planetary systems (led by Co-I Bally).

Theme 3: Philosophical and societal issues in astrobiology. Astrobiology is set apart from many other scientific disciplines by its relevance to understanding the ways in which the science interacts with the broader society. Ranging from using astrobiology as a way to better understand the nature of science to exploring the public's fascination with the topic and the societal implications, astrobiology provides a powerful way to better understand these interactions. Our group at Colorado is one of the few groups in the country that from the beginning has exploited the connections between the sciences and the humanities, and we will continue to explore these connections during the coming five years.

The specific tasks that we will explore are: (i) The nature of historical science and the elucidation of biosignatures from the perspective of philosophy of science (led by Co-I C. Cleland). (ii) Societal issues in astrobiology (led by P.I. B. Jakosky). (iii) The evolution of astrobiological thought and evolution (led by Co-I W. Friedman).

Each of these three research themes will coordinate its activities through a discussion group involving the key research personnel as well as other interested persons. The purpose of each group will be to bring together the individual research tasks into a coherent program and to provide cross-task interaction that integrates the individual tasks.

Theme 4: Astrobiology technology development. The NASA Astrobiology Institute has little formal connections to the NASA flight missions other than through the activities of its individual members. This is especially problematic with regard to the need to develop technology for instruments and missions that will allow upcoming missions to explore astrobiological problems. We propose to create a technology consortium with Ball Aerospace Corp. and Lockheed Martin Astronautics that will bring together scientists and technologists from the academic and industry communities to work together to define the technology needs for astrobiology. This activity will help to create a coherent astrobiology community, will bring the astrobiology science community up to speed on how to design, develop, and implement flight programs, and will serve the goals of the NAI and of NASA by helping to integrate the technology programs into a coherent program. We will hold workshops, run short courses, and write white papers on the technology and science needs, and communicate the results to the community and to NASA Headquarters. Participants who will form the core of a community steering group include scientists from the CU program (led by P.I. Jakosky), senior technologist from the LASP Engineering Division that oversees instrument, spacecraft, and mission development and mission operations (Co-I M. McGrath), senior people from Ball (Harold Reitsema and Steve Kilston) and from Lockheed Martin (James Crocker and Ben Clark), and a leader from the biotechnology development area (Collaborator Andrew Steele from Carnegie Institution of Washington).

Education and public outreach. We propose three distinct yet complementary efforts that together comprise a comprehensive program of education and public outreach: (i) We will continue our public symposia in astrobiology at the University of Colorado, in order to interact with the local university community and the Boulder-Denver public. These will address different aspects of astrobiology, and will bring cutting-edge research to the public along with thoughtful discussion of the broader societal significance. Speakers will be selected from nationally known scientists. (ii) We will take public symposia involving CU astrobiologists to communities and colleges that typically are not able to interact with leading scientists. We will visit 2- and 4-year schools that do not have funds to bring in outside speakers, as well as schools attended predominantly by historically underrepresented groups. These programs, provided at no cost to the receiving institution, will allow students and faculty to interact with leading astrobiologists in both small groups and large venues. We will do three of these per year, with a "warm up" symposium planned for April 2003 at Ft. Lewis College (Colorado), and have planned tentatively our next symposium for Hampton University in Virginia.

Astrobiology community development. We are extremely active in helping to develop the astrobiology community. Activities include leadership and participation in the NAI Focus Groups, in senior-level committees that have involvement in and oversight of astrobiology research activities, on the editorial boards of astrobiology-related journals, in NASA flight missions pertinent to astrobiology, and in national and international conferences devoted to astrobiology.

Training. CU has created a number of undergraduate and graduate level classes in astrobiology and its component disciplines. We have instituted a Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology that provides training and recognition for students who are emphasizing one of the component disciplines. We are active in training graduate students and post-doctoral research associates in astrobiology and its component disciplines.

Collaboration and networking. The CU Center for Astrobiology will continue to participate in activities designed to take advantage of the "virtual" aspect of the NAI. We will participate in videoseminars, videoconferencing, and ongoing technology development and implementation activities led by the NAI. We will utilize the videoconferencing equipment for point-to-point discussions and research collaborations with other NAI teams.

Institutional commitment. CU has a commitment to developing the discipline of astrobiology, as seen for example in its hiring of several new faculty in astrobiology during the past four years. In addition, it is committing resources of funding from state funds, matching funds on equipment, Graduate Teaching Assistant support to enhance interactions between astrobiology research and teaching, IT/Tech personnel support, and faculty time to participate in programmatic issues in astrobiology. Ball and Lockheed Martin are both providing matching support in kind, and Denver Museum of Nature and Science is providing substantial in-kind support for our programs with them. In total, the dollar and equivalent dollar value of resources contributed by CU, Ball and LMA sum to approximately 1.5 million over five years.

Management. Each Co-I will have authority over funds allocated to them, with oversight provided by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the University of Colorado. Subcontracts will be made to Ball and LMA to participate in our collaborations. The P.I. has final authority and responsibility over all expenditures, subject to the rules and regulations of the University of Colorado, the State of Colorado, and NASA.