Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution and future of life on Earth and beyond, is a multidisciplinary field that has expanded rapidly over the last two decades. Now, a consortium of organisations has announced plans to establish a European Astrobiology Institute (EAI) to coordinate astrobiology research in Europe. The new institute is being created in accordance with the recommendations of a White Paper addressing the scientific and social implications of astrobiology research in Europe, presented today at the European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) 2018 in Berlin.
The White Paper includes contributions from authors in twenty countries and over thirty scientific institutions worldwide. The contributions draw on the experiences of other astrobiology research communities around the world and recognise the societal implications of the field as well as addressing the scientific goals.
“We are increasingly well-placed to answer major questions concerning the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the origins of life on Earth and the evolution of our planet,” said Wolf Geppert, co-author of the White Paper chapter on leading the future of astrobiology in Europe. “By its nature, astrobiology is multidisciplinary field that requires collaboration. This White Paper shows that Astrobiology has the potential to be a flagship of European cooperation. The formation of the EAI will provide a structure that will bring together many organisations involved in the field to coordinate research and provide a proactive voice for the community.”
Missions and research programmes related to astrobiology have led to some of the most significant and high-profile discoveries in recent years. Thousands of planets have been discovered in other solar systems. The Rosetta mission confirmed a connection between comets an the life-supporting atmosphere on Earth. There is the potential that, in the near future, we will discover living or fossilized microbes on planets or moons within our own Solar System, or we could find signs of biological processes in exoplanetary systems.
“Regardless of whether or not we find evidence for life beyond Earth, astrobiology can provide paradigm-changing scientific advances in our understanding of our origins and our place in the Universe,” said Nigel Mason, who edited and co-authored the White Paper chapter on science and research. “Key areas of research identified in the White Paper include understanding the formation of habitable planets and moons, the pathway to produce the complex organics needed for life from simple molecules, how the conditions for life evolved on the early Earth and the study of life under extreme conditions.”
The White Paper includes sections on environmental protection and sustainability, current regulation, education, training, careers, technical innovation and commerce. In particular, the White Paper emphasises the role of social sciences and humanities in astrobiology and how the field has the capacity to change the view of how humans look at themselves and what it means to be alive.
“Astrobiology has clear existential implications. The social sciences and humanities can play a key role in helping us to prepare for the discovery of life beyond Earth, whether microbial or intelligent, and to understand the likely theological, ethical and worldview impacts on society,” said Klara Anna Čápová, co-editor of the White Paper and author of chapters on the social study of astrobiology as a science and public understanding of astrobiology. “Astrobiology is a subject of intrinsic interest to the general public and to school students but it is also vulnerable to misinterpretation. The formation of the EAI will enable us to make sure that reliable information is distributed to Europe’s citizens and classrooms and that they are actively engaged with the field.”
Astrobiology also presents environmental challenges in ensuring that any extraterrestrial life forms or remains are not compromised by scientific investigations (forward planetary protection), and protecting the Earth from contamination by potentially harmful biological material of extraterrestrial origin (backward planetary protection).
“The preservation of biodiversity and of pristine environments on Earth is of the greatest importance for our ability to study life, its origin, distribution and future. Both forward and backward planetary protection must be understood within a broader context of ensuring the sustainability of scientific and commercial practices,” said Erik Persson, co-editor of the White Paper and author of chapters on the international context of astrobiology and environment and sustainability.
An interim board has been established to map out the tasks, structure, governing bodies, activities, funding and administration of a EAI. The presentation of the White Paper at EPSC 2018 is the first step in a community consultation on its recommendations and plans for the EAI. The formal launch of the EAI is planned for the spring of 2019.
The White Paper “Astrobiology and Society in Europe Today”, edited by K. Capova, E. Persson, T. Milligan, D. Dunér, is published through the SpringerBriefs in Astronomy book series, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The final authenticated version is available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96265-8