UK Centre for Astrobiology

News

Here you can find the latest news from the UK Centre for Astrobiology.

New popular science book: Taxi From Another Planet

Taxi From Another Planet

UKCA co-director Charles Cockell has published a new popular science book with Harvard University Press. "Taxi from Another Planet" is designed to make the cosmos accessible to any reader on Earth.

We all know cabbies like to talk - and when Charles Cockell is in the back seat, topics like the potential for alien life and the benefits of space exploration often come up. Each essay in this convivial collection takes questions like, Will we understand aliens?, What if there isn't life out in the Universe?, and Why is the government spending tax dollars on space programs anyway? as a jumping-off point for discussion. Taxi from Another Planet is available now. Get your copy here on Amazon.

Science, society, and history are woven together throughout this delightful book, resembling the many intertwining streets of Cockell's journeys, and ours.

Kevin Peter HandAuthor of Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space

UKCA welcomes new Fellow - Ziyao Fang to Edinburgh

We are pleased to welcome Ziyao Fang to the UKCA for two years

Ziyao did his PhD in geochemistry in the University of Science and Technology of China. His interests are in planetary surface processes, the coevolution of life and planets, and isotopic and biomarker signatures of life. He has worked in the Qaidam Basin in Tibet among other places to study the signatures of life in evaporites. At Edinburgh, he will be carrying out a fellowship studying the distribution and nature of isotopic signatures in different sulfate deposits.

UKCA session at Oxford for Romania Summer School

August 2022

Sean in Oxford

Every year the Oxford for Romania charity runs a Summer School in Oxford providing an eye-opening learning experience for high school students in Romania with great academic potential and limited financial means. This year, UKCA co-director Dr Sean McMahon travelled to Magdalen College, Oxford to lead a session on astrobiology and discuss academic career pathways with the students. 

Students were introduced to core astrobiological concepts including habitability and biosignatures and solved a practical exercise on the temperature profile of Mars before conducting a debate on Mars colonisation. Feedback from the students included: "I never heard of astrobiology before and Sean’s course was captivating, interesting and funny," and "I seriously consider I could do something like this moving forward".

 

UKCA hosts workshop on self-organisation and abiotic formation  of 'life-like' structures

Meeting photograph

The UKCA is hosting a workshop (June 6th to 10th 2022) on abiotic self-organization and pattern formation in rocks, minerals, and other geological materials (including chemobrionic self-organization or “chemical gardens”).

The meeting is funded by the EU COST Action Chemobrionics (https://www.chemobrionics.eu/) and will bring about 30 scientists to Edinburgh from around the world. This meeting will inform future studies of how life can be distinguished from the complex products of “life-like” abiotic self-organization, helping us avoid mistakes in the recognition of extraterrestrial biology. We will share evidence, theoretical developments, practical advice/protocols, and demonstrations on two questions:

(1) which geological phenomena (mineral formations, diagenetic phenomena, pseudofossils, etc.) can be elucidated by investigating them as instances of self-organization, i.e., spontaneous pattern-formation driven by the internal dynamics of nonequilibrium systems? (Established examples in geoscience include Liesegang rings, agate banding, manganese dendrites and basalt columns);

(2) how do specific experimental, numerical, and analytical methods help us to understand these phenomena?

 

Fellowship Successes: Space Microbiology and Early Life

Spring 2022

We welcome and congratulate two postdoctoral staff members beginning highly prestigious and competitive Leverhulme and Royal Society research fellowships at the UK Centre for Astrobiology.

Dr Rosa Santomartino, previously a postdoctoral scientist working with Prof Charles Cockell, has been awarded an Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust. Dr Corentin Loron, who recently completed a doctorate in palaeobiology at the University of Liège, joins the Planetary Palaeobiology Group at the UKCA as a Newton Fellow supported by the Royal Society. 

Dr Santomartino's research in space microbiology focuses on the molecular mechanisms that drive microbial interaction with natural and artificial environments in space, to perform space biomanufacturing, recycling and in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU), and to promote an efficient and sustainable impact of space exploration and its terrestrial applications. She performed two microbiology experiments onboard the International Space Station, BioRock and BioAsteroid, launched in space in 2019 and 2020 respectively. She is an invited scientific advisor in microbiology for the Italian Space Agency, and collaborated with international scientists in the creation of the NASA Decadal Survey on microbiology.

Dr Loron's research focuses on the use of state-of-the-art microanalytical techniques to investigate the fossil record of early life on Earth, with implications for the tempo of major evolutionary events and the search for life on Mars and beyond. His previous achievements include discovering a new species of organic-walled microfossil that may represent the oldest known fossil fungus, a diagnosis supported by infrared spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy. His work at the UKCA will focus on the development of new experimental and analytical tools for interrogating very ancient organic materials, and on further resolving the evolutionary history of major groups of life on Earth.

 

Building Habitable Worlds Workshop 2022

April 2022

Building Habitable Worlds 2022

After a two-year break, Edinburgh has hosted the  2022 Building Habitable Worlds meeting, a chance for early career researchers in astrobiology to get together to discuss common research interests and collaborations.

Dr Sean McMahon gave an introductory talk on “Baselines, Biosignatures, and Bayesians: Anticipating Ambiguity in the Search for Life”.   Attendees gave three-minute pitches on their area of research and then participated in open discussion to share their research and foster new collaborations.  Discussions at this year’s meeting focused on the detection and interpretation of biosignatures and the non-biological background noise we observe in every system. Discussions continued at an informal dinner and at the pub later in the evening.

Thank you to Melanie Podbielski for organising this event and to all the participants.

 

UKCA contributes to Oxford Union Mars debate

February 2022

McMahon at the Union

Dr Sean McMahon, co-director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology, was invited to speak in a debate on the motion "This House Would Populate Mars" at the Oxford Union, arguably the foremost debating society in the world. Dr McMahon opposed the motion for three reasons: the extreme unpleasantness of human life on Mars, the lack of any compelling need to settle other planets, and the obligation to preserve the aesthetic, cultural and scientific value of extraterrestrial environments. The motion was defeated. Also speaking in the debate were Dr Greg Autry of Arizona State University, Alfredo Munoz of the Space Architecture Technical Committee, Dr Sylvia Ekstrom of the Geneva Observatory, and the science journalist Dr Anjana Ahuja.

Dr McMahon's speech can be watched here: https://youtu.be/Rgex3NfloHU

 

UKCA PhD students celebrate conference success

September 2021

Several members of the UK Centre for Astrobiology participated in the recent meeting of the European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA), held online this year. Special congratulations go to our PhD students Annemiek Waajen and Ophelia Gunn for their prizewinning contributions. Annemiek gave a presentation entitled “How the presence of meteorites could have shaped microbial communities on early Earth”, which secured an EANA 20th Anniversary Presentation Award. Annemiek received a medal and certificate (sponsored by UNICAM SISTEMAS ANALÍTICOS). Ophelia won the 2021 Poster Award for her poster entitled “Fluid Inclusions in Ice: A Sanctuary for Martian Microbes?”, receiving a Springer book and an online subscription to the 2022 volume of Astrobiology.

 

Centre completes four-day meeting exploring conditions for freedom beyond Earth 

June 2021

The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty considered near and long-term forms of liberty in space and the governance and institutional arrangements to secure them. The Centre ran a successful 4-day online conference on 'The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty'  from June 8-11, 2021. The four days of talks can be accessed in the links below. The  meeting explored the conditions for freedom beyond the Earth, from the near-term (satellite operations) to the long-term (ethics and freedoms on interstellar worldships). Over 35 speakers considered all aspects of different types of freedoms, exploring governance, conflict, war and institutional arrangements to secure different forms of liberty in space. Keynote talks were given by Anthony Pagden and Robert Zubrin. The meeting was supported by the Open Lunar Foundation, the Institute for Liberal Studies, the British Interplanetary Society, the Edinburgh Futures Institute, the UK Centre for Astrobiology. The Centre is now coordinating a book on 'The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty' which will be published by Oxford University Press in 2022.

The talks can be watched here:

Day 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA5OQK2NhzE

Day 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9u_Nq_gJZwQ

Day 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcvJudni9jY

Day 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYxRow1HvBI

 

New paper highlights risk that the search for life on Mars will find "dubiofossils"

Summer 2021

An international team led by Dr Sean McMahon has discovered enigmatic life-like microstructures formed in a Mars-like subsurface environment. Major NASA and ESA missions are underway to seek fossil evidence of life on Mars, and to return it to Earth.  These missions are focused on finding traces of ancient microorganisms like bacteria, since more complex life is unlikely to have evolved on the red planet. Unfortunately, fossil microorganisms can be difficult to identify. Sean McMahon, Chancellor's Fellow in Astrobiology at the UKCA, has been searching for microbial fossils in rocks and minerals formed in ancient underground habitats on Earth, analogous to those that might be found on Mars. His search led him to NW Italy, where mineral veins that formed under the seafloor in the Jurassic are now exposed on land. The veins formed during "serpentinization", a chemical interaction between water and rocks that occurs widely in Earth's subsurface and has also taken place on Mars. Inside these veins, McMahon found thread-like microscopic objects that resemble fossil bacteria but could also have other, non-biological origins. Working with an international team of geoscientists and chemists, McMahon showed that these objects meet most of the "biogenicity criteria" used to identify genuine fossils, but can be closely mimicked by mineral precipitation in non-biological chemical reactions. The objects can therefore be described as "dubiofossils" — fossil-like objects whose true origins are difficult to determine. This finding highlights the risk that the search for fossils on Mars may give ambiguous results that must be interpreted cautiously. The paper has been published by the journal Geobiology and is free to read online at this link.

 

UKCA completes new prison materials for prisoners to imagine future beyond Earth

Summer 2021

Life Beyond

Collaboration with Scottish Prison Service, Fife College and Prisoners' Education Trust will allow all prisoners to take part in Life Beyond project

During the pandemic, members of UKCA were busy developing a new course for prisoners based on its highly successful Life Beyond initiative. The new materials allow any prisoner anywhere in the world to get involved in the design of space settlements.

Life Beyond has already led to Scottish prisoners publishing two books about designs for a Mars station and recently a book on prisoner designs for lunar stations with the British Interplanetary Society.

One limitation of this project has been the need for teachers to go to prisons to deliver it, which was not possible in the pandemic and takes up time and personnel in any normal time. Now, the UKCA has developed a stand alone set of materials that any prisoner can do on their own or with others. The materials come with an educator's guide to inform prison teachers about the course and how to implement it. There is a set of Short Activities that prisoners can do in an afternoon and a Full Course that takes two to three months. The materials take the participants through the design of a Mars or lunar settlement, getting them to write letters, draw designs, even to contribute to a Lunar and Martian Cookbook. All their work can be sent to Edinburgh for future publication.

You can read more about the Life Beyond project here and there is a summary here.

The new Life Beyond Course can be done by any prisoner anywhere and they can submit their work to the project, contributing directly to plans for the human exploration and settlement of space.

Charles Cockell, Project Coordinator

The materials have been developed in collaboration with the Scottish Prison Service and Fife College who deliver education in Scottish prisons. They will be distributed to English and Welsh prisons through the Prisoners' Education Trust. Any prisoner around the world is welcome to do the course.

If you are interested in accessing these materials, you can email Charles Cockell at c.s.cockell@ed.ac.uk

 

UKCA hosts three-day meeting on 'The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty'

June 2021

In June this year, the UKCA hosted a meeting with partners, the Edinburgh Futures Institute, the Open Lunar Foundation (US) and the Institute for Liberal Studies (Canada), to explore the conditions for freedom beyond Earth. The establishment of a permanent human presence beyond the Earth raises questions on what freedoms people can expect. On the one hand, space offers escape from entrenched views on Earth. On the other hand, the control of oxygen, food, and water production in isolated populations presents opportunities for extensive forms of tyranny. Investigating the institutional arrangements for liberty in space constitutes a fascinating problem in political philosophy and one of the most profound new challenges for democracy in the 21st century. The meeting was run as a set of on-line webinars open to the general public. The speakers were all international experts on space law, science and political philosophy. The meeting was part of a wider effort by UKCA and agreement to publish a book in early 2022 on 'The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty' with Oxford University Press (OUP). 

More information.

 

UKCA launches BioAsteroid experiment to International Space Station

November 2020

We have begun a new experiment aboard the International Space Station to study the mining of asteroid materials, following the successful 2019 BioRock flight. In November this year, we will be flying our second experiment to the International Space Station. BioAsteroid follows our successful flight to the space station in August 2019 with Space X. In that experiment, we investigated the formation of biofilms on natural surfaces and the bioleaching of elements from basaltic rock. 

In BioAsteroid, we will investigate the growth of bacteria and fungus on asteroidal material in microgravity, studying biofilm formation, bioleaching and other chemical and biological changes in microgravity, including the genetic transcriptional changes in space.

 

Second edition of Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe

May 2020

Astrobiology

Wiley Blackwell has now published the second edition of Charles Cockell's undergraduate-level textbook: Astrobiology, Understanding Life in the Universe. The 23-chapter book covers all topics to do with life in the Universe, including the origin of life, early life on Earth, the co-evolution of life and Earth and the search for life beyond Earth, with chapters discussing the habitability of Mars, icy moons and exoplanets. The textbook is based on experience gained in teaching astrobiology to undergraduates at the University of Edinburgh since 2013.

The textbook is directed towards undergraduates in life sciences, physical sciences, geosciences and other fields, but it can be used by anyone with an interest in the subject. It contains 20% more material than the first edition, with new boxes on 'Discussion Points', careers of astrobiologists and review questions for each chapter.

The textbook comes with a complete set of lecture slides in Powerpoint covering all the chapters, which can be used to set up a new astrobiology course in any university. There is also a booklet with model answers to the 168 questions in the textbook. The resources can be found at www.wiley.com/go/cockell/astrobiology

The new textbook can be purchased on Amazon.

Astrobiology was written using experience from our University of Edinburgh course, taught since 2013, and it is written for anyone with an interest in this subject.

Charles Cockell

 

UKCA publishes new book on Moon exploration with Scottish prisoners

April 2020

Life Beyond From the Prison to the Moon

The Life Beyond project engages the prison population in the exploration and settlement of space. Since 2016, the UKCA has run a project in Scottish prisons to engage the incarcerated population  in the design of settlements beyond the Earth. The programme is designed to enhance science learning, literary skills, civic responsibilities and other skills and abilities in the prison population.

The new book, published with the British Interplanetary Society, presents plans, engineering and artwork designs for the exploration of the Moon. Life Beyond is a collaboration with the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and Fife College.

The book, Life Beyond: From Prison to the Moon,  is the first long term strategy for the exploration of the Moon developed by prisoners.

The book follows the first book, published in 2018, presenting plans for the exploration of Mars. Life Beyond: From Prison to Mars, was the collected work of prisoners from HMP Edinburgh and HMP Glenochil. Proceeds from the sale of the books go towards space education projects at the British Interplanetary Society. 

Life Beyond was designed to take prisoners beyond learning new information, to involve them in entirely original research and development of settlements beyond the Earth. From behind the confines of a prison, you can help direct humanity to the stars.

Charles CockellProject organiser, Life Beyond

 

UKCA begins new 'Building Worlds' initiative

January 2020

The UKCA has begun a new initiative to consider how habitable worlds form and how life might leave traces on those worlds. The 'Building Worlds' research theme emerged from the 2019 Erskine Williamson day in the university's Centre for Science in Extreme Conditions (CSEC).

Building Worlds recognises that at the university we have a critical mass ranging from protoplanetary disc formation right the way through to the preservation of biomarkers of life and covering points in between (structure of the interior and atmospheres of planetary bodies, oigins of life, habitability of planetary environments), including links into the university's new Space and Satellite research theme which is focused on space, sustainability and the commercial market.

Building Worlds links researchers across the UKCA, CSEC, The Centre for Exoplanet Science and across diverse schools in the university. The principal objective is to build research collaborations leading to scientific productivity and new research proposals. In particular, it seeks to build new interdisciplinary research collaborations. The recent hiring of Rafal Szabla and Valentina Erastova in the School of Chemistry, who are establishing an origins of life focus at Edinburgh, and Colin Snodgrass in the Institute for Astronomy (comets and other planetary bodies) has brought new expertise to the university.

building worlds