Here you can find the latest news from the UK Centre for Astrobiology.
Fellowship Successes: Space Microbiology and Early Life
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 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
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 Co-director wins Oxford Union Mars debate
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
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
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:
New paper highlights risk that the search for life on Mars will find "dubiofossils"
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
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
UKCA hosts three-day meeting on 'The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty'
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).
UKCA launches BioAsteroid experiment to International Space Station
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
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.
UKCA publishes new book on Moon exploration with Scottish prisoners
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.
UKCA begins new 'Building Worlds' initiative
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.
Astrobiology meets antibiotic therapy at Institute of Advanced Studies, Durham University
Project explores role of clays in life preservation
UKCA co-director and Chancellor’s Fellow, Sean McMahon, has accepted a three-month visiting fellowship at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study, a research centre that brings together leading researchers and practitioners from around the world to collaborate on cutting-edge interdisciplinary projects. Sean is participating in the “Antimicrobial Clay Therapy” project led by Durham molecular biologist Gary Sharples and sociologist Kim Jamie. This project aims to combine empirical studies of the chemistry and antibacterial activities of clay minerals with political, social and cultural investigations that may inform future medical applications of these minerals. Other visiting fellows on the project include leading international experts in clay mineral chemistry and activity.
Sean’s work on clay-organic interactions is motivated by their potential roles in the origin of life and the preservation of biomolecules and cells in ancient rocks on Earth and Mars. While in Durham, Sean is conducting biogeochemical experiments to investigate how and why some clay minerals modify the chemical environment around decaying organisms so that organic preservation is favoured. He will return to Edinburgh at the beginning of 2020.
UKCA to host MINAR 8 (Mine Analogue Research) at Boulby Mine in March 2020
Planetary science and mining technology to be tested in Boulby Mine
In March 2020, the UKCA will host the eighth iteration of its highly successful MINAR (Mining Analogue Research) programme at Boulby Mine. MINAR 8 will involve teams from NASA JPL, Kalam University (India), Newcastle University and other institutions. MINAR 8 will focus on deep subsurface sulfate deposits.
Begun in 2014, MINAR brings planetary scientists together in the Boulby Mine to undertake scientific studies, test technology for planetary exploration and consider synergies with mining applications, using the Boulby Underground Science Facility.
You can read more about the MINAR programme and its past work in the link below:
UKCA successfully launches and retrieves first biomining experiment from space
Experiment studied microbial growth and biofilm formation in space.
The UKCA's BioRock experiment was successfully sent to the International Space Station in August 2019. The experiment studied how microbes grow, form biofilms and influence the extraction of elements from rocks.
BioRock was launched on SpaceX Commercial Resupply Mission 18 from NASA Kennedy Space Centre in July and returned at the end of August on the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The experiment investigated three microbes and their growth responses to microgravity, simulated Martian gravity and a 1 g control. The team conducted parrallel groudn experiments at NASA Ames Research Centre.
The experiment, as well as providing fundamental science results, was also the first biomining experiment to be launched into space and the hardware, the first mining experiment to be launched into space.
You can read more about this experiment here: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/biorock-iss-research-microbes-space/
NASA selects UKCA experiment for Space Station research highlght
BioRock experiment to launch with Space X to ISS
The UKCA's BioRock experiment is a NASA research highlight in the run up to the launch of Space X's Commercial Resupply Mission 18 to the International Space Station. You can read more about the experiment here: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/spx18-research/
BioRock is an experiment to study the interaction of microbes with rocks and the diverse applications of this research including: Biomining of elements from extraterrestrial materials in future human space exploration and settlement initiatives, the study of soil formation from rocks, the study of the use of extraterrestrial regolith in future space exploration. The experiment will also offer new fundamental insights into biofilm growth in space.
The project is led by UKCA at Edinburgh in collaboration with our scientific partners: the German Space Agency (DLR) and SCK-CEN (Belgium). The project is a collaboration with our prime contractor Kayser Italia through the European Space Agency (ESA).
UKCA prepares to launch the world's first biomining reactor into space
BioRock will test microbial growth and bioleaching on the International Space Station
The UKCA will launch an experiment to the International Space Station in July 2019 to test the world's first prototype biomining reactor. BioRock is scheduled for launch on Space X CRS-18 to the station. The experiment consists of 18 biomining reactors containing basalt rocks to simulate lunar and Martian rocks. Once onboard the space station, microbes on the rock are activated and they begin to grow on the rocks and extract economically interesting elements such as rare earth elements. The microbes will be grown in space conditions (microgravity) and simulated Martian and Earth gravity using the space station's KUBIK centrifuges. After three weeks, the experiment is terminated the reactors sent back to Earth on a Space X Dragon capsule. Scientists at UKCA will study microbial growth, extraction of elements from the rocks, and the role of microgravity and Martian gravity in influencing microbial growth.
The project is led by UKCA at Edinburgh in collaboration with our scientific partners: the German Space Agency (DLR) and SCK-CEN (Belgium). The project is a collaboration with our prime contractor Kayser Italia through the European Space Agency (ESA).
UKCA completes lunar station design with Scottish prisoners
In collaboration with the Scottish Prison Service, prisoners design their own lunar stations and publish a book
Following on from its successful first round of Life Beyond, a UKCA project to advance science education in prisoners and encourage prisoners to take an active part in original research, the UKCA has just completed a three month project in HMP Glenochil to design a station for the lunar surface.
Life Beyond has been running since 2016 and has already resulted in a prisoner-led book on Mars station designs in collaboration with the British Interplanetary Society. This time, prisoners took on the task of designing a station for the Moon (image shown of one of their drawings). As well as scientific designs, the participants wrote poetry, music, essays and considered the societal issues in establishing long-term settlements beyond the Earth, including governance and civil responsibilities. You can read more about this project and its learning objectives in the Journal of Correctional Education and in the summary paper below.
A book presenting the lunar station designs will be published later in 2019.
NASA programme BASALT publishes special issue on research for human Mars exploration
UKCA led microbiology effort on NASA analogue programme to prepare humans for Mars
A special issue of papers has been published on the NASA project BASALT. Over a four year period, the UKCA worked as lead on the microbiology effort to study life in extreme basaltic environments in preparation for human missions to Mars. BASALT (Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains) research programme was an international team of scientists, engineers, mission operators, and NASA astronauts dedicated to enabling the human-robotic exploration of Mars.
The four year NASA-funded programme explored the lava terrains of Idaho and Hawaii, testing technologies for humn exploration, sampling protocols and carrying out science. The UKCA led the study on the microbiology of the sites to advance sampling protocols and our fundamental understanding of life in extreme rocky environments.
The special issue (Astrobiology March issue) covers some of the major reserach outcomes of the BASALT programme.
UKCA completes seventh MINAR (Mine Analogue Research) at Boulby Mine, UK
Students from India join UKCA in tests of underground robots
The UKCA has led its seventh MINAR (Mine Analogue Research) programme in Boulby Mine, UK in collaboration with the Kalam University, India. Boulby Mine is the location of the world's first subsurface astrobiology lab, established by UKCA in 2013. In MINAR 7, UKCA and the Boulby Underground Science Facility were joined by six undergraduates from IMS Engineering College, Ghaziabad, India and the Dronacharya Group of institutions.
The students came to Boulby to test two rovers . The rovers are tests for technology for the Indian exploration of the Moon and Mars with possible transfer into mining environments. Over the week, they drove their rovers in the Boulby Mars yard, testing the components for ruggedness and improving ideas for rover design. This was the first field test of their rovers.
The students were selected through the Edinburgh University-Kalam Centre (India) project called 'Mars Mission India'. Mars Mission India is an initiative to advance astrobiology and space exploration education in India which has included developing astrobiology for primary and secondary schools in India and astrobiology engineering at university level, building on expertise developed by the UK Centre for Astrobiology.
The students returned to India to improve their rovers based on their experiences at Boulby and in the future they hope to work on Indian space missions.
MINAR is a UKCA-led initiative, begun in 2013, to link space exploration with the Earth-based challenges of safe and successful mining. It was the first planetary analogue programme to be started in the UK and the first analogue programme to be established in an active mine environment, linking a commercial environment with the development of space technology. You can read a paper on the MINAR programme below:
UKCA launches major new initiative in India
Mars Mission design and astrobiology takes off through Kalam University
The UKCA has signed an agreement with the Kalam Centre and the Abdul Kalam Technical University to launch an Indian nationwide competition to design technology for Mars. The 'Mars Mission India' will culminate in students visiting Boulby Mine to test their technological innovations. In addition to Mars Mission India, the UKCA and Kalam University are using the MOOC materials from the UKCA to launch an online astrobiology course in India.
UKCA Fellow publishes field guide to hunting for fossils on Mars
Where to search for life on Mars?
Publication proposes best places to search for life
Sean McMahon has recently published a paper that proposes the best places to search for evidence of past life on Mars. The paper was written with a host of co-authors from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and aims to help forthcoming NASA and European missions to search for traces of ancient life on the red planet. Three or four billion years ago, Mars was warm enough to sustain lakes, rivers, and maybe oceans. These water bodies produced sediments rich in iron, silica, and clay — components strongly favourable to the formation of fossils, for reasons that are well understood and experimentally verifiable. On Earth, rocks this old have been scrambled, destroyed and recycled by the movements of tectonic plates and by the erosive action of liquid water. But on Mars, a much drier and less dynamic planet, rocks of this age are well preserved and easy to find in crater-lake and river deposits. Right now, we argue, these rocks are the best place to look for fossils on Mars — better than the other candidates, which include possible hot-spring silica “sinter” in Gusev Crater, rare carbonate minerals, salt deposits, and mineral-filled pores in volcanic rocks (these might be explored one day, but need more work to resolve critical uncertainties and objections).
UKCA - The First Five Years
Paper summarises achievements and lessons from first five years
The UKCA has published a paper summarising the first five years of the centre with a specific focus on lessons we have learned in establishing a centre. The paper is primarily directed at those thinking of doing something similar (or setting up any centre). It discusses how we have integrated science with teaching and public education and our accomplishments in science, technology and space policy. The paper is open access and you can get access to it by clicking here. Or you can download it below.
UKCA publishes new book on prison Mars station designs
Publication showcases Life Beyond work
After a successful first set of courses at two prisons in Scotland, HMP Glenochil and Edinburgh, a book bringing together the Mars station designs developed by learners at the prisons is to be published jointly with the British Interplanetary Society. The book - 'Life Beyond - From Prison to Mars' will be distributed to space agencies, engineering organisations and space societies around the world to promote the work at the prisons. It's also to be used as a 'textbook' for future iterations of the course at other prisons. If you're interested in receiving a copy of the book, please get in contact with us.
UKCA completes MINAR 5, 1 km underground
Fifth astrobiology analog campaign using its deep subsurface astrobiology laboratory
The UKCA completed a two week campaign of testing space instruments and studying life in extreme environments using an underground astrobiology laboratory 1 km underground at the Boulby Mine, UK in October 2017.
MINAR 5 (Mine Analog Research) ran from October 8-20th 2017 for two weeks and involved scientists from NASA, Sweden, Switzerland and a number of groups from the UK. It focussed on the study of life and biosignature in the deep subsurface and the testing of a variety of instruments including drills, life detection equipment and other new planetary instruments. In the second week, MINAR involved ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer. You can access conversations on Matthias here and You Tube also has other links to MINAR.
UKCA joined by Javier Martin-Torres
In September 2017 the UKCA was joined by Javier Martin-Torres, who currently leads a planetary science and atmospheric research group at the Luleå University of Technology, Sweden, division of Space technology. Javier is PI of the HABIT instrument to be flown on the ExoMars European Mars lander and will join us as a Visiting Fellow.
New Marie-Curie Fellow to join UKCA
The UKCA was joined by by Marie-Curie Fellow, Sean McMahon in September 2017. His work has focused on early life on Earth and its application to looking at the habitability of other planets such as Mars. Previously at Yale and Aberdeen, at the University of Edinburgh he will work on subsurface biosignatures and how they can inform the search for life elsewhere.
New NSF Fellow to join UKCA
The UKCA was joined by Rebecca Prescott. Currently at the University of Hawaii, her NSF (National Science Foundation) Fellowship will be held jointly at the University of Edinburgh and the University of South Carolina. She will be focusing on quorum sensing molecules in microbial mats and the search for biosignatures on Mars.