How Astrobiologists Work


An artist’s concept of NASA’s MAVEN mission, one that astrobiologists are keenly interested and involved in.
An artist’s concept of NASA’s MAVEN mission, one that astrobiologists are keenly interested and involved in.
Image courtesy NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

As a spacecraft called MAVEN hurdled toward Mars, NASA prepared for data that could reveal the planet's atmospheric history. After achieving orbit on Sept. 21, 2014, MAVEN and its team have begun examining how and when the Martian atmosphere degraded, as well as how and when the planet's liquid water disappeared. Eventually, we may know what exactly happened to the red planet -- how Mars became incapable of supporting life [source: NASA].

The MAVEN orbiter is just one of many missions in which astrobiologists play a critical part. NASA defines astrobiology as "the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe," and the field informs a lot of the agency's work [source: NASA]. Yet astrobiologists are a rare breed.

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Astrobiology was really only recognized as its own scientific area in the last couple of decades [source: NASA]. Not that it's a new concept – NASA has been studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life since the 1960s, only it was "exobiology" back then [source: NASA]. The SETI Institute, which also searches for extraterrestrial intelligence, has been around since the mid-1980s [source: SETI]. But it was all considered at least a little bit fringe-y.

Now, astrobiology is a widely accepted discipline (there's even a primer!). NASA's Mars orbiters and rovers, satellite-based experiments placing microorganisms in space, and telescopic search for potentially habitable planets have brought astrobiology-related questions to the forefront of modern scientific inquiry [source: NASA].

Widely accepted doesn't mean widespread, though. Astrobiology is a tough field to break into. Universities typically don't offer bachelor's degrees in it. Even astrobiology doctorates are few and far between [sources: Dartnell, Lubick]. Research into extraterrestrial life is typically conducted not by "astrobiologists," but by teams made up of biologists, geologists, chemists, astronomers, physicists and others who contribute to a broad, in-depth understanding of life in our universe.

As NASA makes astrobiology an increasingly central focus of its work, interest in the field is growing. For budding scientists, the draw is obvious: Astrobiology applies the rigors of the scientific method to questions once considered the untenable purview of sci-fi fans.

Are We Alone?

In the broadest possible terms, astrobiology is simply about life. How it comes to be. How it changes and adapts. What it needs to survive. If we can know all there is to know about life, we might be able to determine where else in the universe it once thrived, and where it could be hiding now. We also might learn what the future holds for life on Earth.

In other words, astrobiology is less about finding aliens (though that would be awesome) than it is about finding clues to the complex relationship between life and the universe. Under what conditions does the universe create, sustain and destroy life? What makes one planet habitable and another uninhabitable? Is it possible for life to originate and survive under more extreme planetary conditions?

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And finding clues to the past: Have other planets ever supported life? If so, what was that life like, and what happened to it? (And could the same thing happen on Earth?)

And narrowing the search: If potentially life-supporting planets are out there, how do we find them? How do we recognize them as such? What tools would we need for the job?

The search for answers comes from a million different angles, including the most obvious: astronomy, planetology, astrophysics and biology. Astrobiology research and experimentation does happen in space, with planetary rovers, data-collecting orbiters and increasingly high-powered telescopes that can see beyond our own solar system [source: University of Washington]. These types of projects depend on space agencies for support. They've got the money and the technology.

More often, astrobiological study happens on Earth, where life is ripe for the researching. Most teams who work on astrobiology projects include members from multiple disciplines, because life is not just "life" in chemistry, physics, biology and genetics [source: University of Washington]. It is affected by geologic activity. It survives in the extreme conditions of deep-ocean hydrothermal vents. Teams of biochemists, microbiologists and astrophysicists might work with oceanographers and geologists and robotics engineers. The inherently interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology is considered by some in the field to be one its most exciting attributes [sources: Lubick, Dartnell].

Though the work itself can be pretty exciting, too, like heading into high-elevation volcanic lakes for what the SETI Institute calls "extreme scientific scuba."

A Day in the Astrobiology "Lab"

If you become an astrobiologist, you might become interested in searching for signals from distant stars and galaxies with a radio telescope. This one is located at the Lewis Center for Educational Research in California.
If you become an astrobiologist, you might become interested in searching for signals from distant stars and galaxies with a radio telescope. This one is located at the Lewis Center for Educational Research in California.
Image courtesy NASA/JPL

A typical day for an astrobiologist might involve analyzing space-telescope images or data from a satellite orbiting Mars. It might involve developing computer models or suiting up in scuba gear. It might be spent writing grants, lots of grants, to fund the work. Or it might be spent in the Arctic.

Most astrobiologists work either for NASA or an academic institution, though private foundations support some astrobiology positions as well [sources: Lubick, Vault]. But regardless of affiliation, astrobiology is a small world in which most organizations and teams are ultimately tied together, whether by funding sources, collaborative efforts and/or organizations like the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). The institute is a web connecting astrobiology research around the globe through partner institutions and individual member teams [source: NASA]. One of those teams, from Arizona State University, studies elements that are the most basic building blocks of life on Earth, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and iron, and the relationship between the availability of those elements and water. Using what they learn, the Arizona team will develop computer models that could help predict whether a given solar system is likely to contain a habitable planet [source: NASA].

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Other research comes from the SETI Institute, where planetary scientist Nathalie Cabrol leads a team exploring the world's highest-elevation volcanic lakes. The work involves free diving and scuba diving at 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) to study how organisms evolve to survive in extreme environments [source: SETI].

Through the Mars Institute, scientists on the Haughton-Mars Project have established base camps in the High Arctic, on the uninhabited Devon Island. They test exploration methods in the extreme "polar desert," an environment determined to be similar to the makeup of Mars [source: Mars on Earth].

Not all astrobiology work is quite so extreme. SETI astronomer Dan Werthimer has spent decades analyzing data from massive radio telescopes, looking for signals from beyond Earth (much like Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research, on whom Carl Sagan based the main character in the 1997 movie "Contact") [source: Exploratorium]. So far, he's found nothing – but as he told Congress in 2014: "It may be only a few years before we have detected evidence of life beyond the Earth."

Werthimer also founded the SETI@Home system that lets computer owners contribute their processing power to the massive task of combing through those telescopes' data [source: SETI@Home].

Astrobiology research is happening all over the world, but it's not the easiest field to break into. The career path is often uncertain and varies widely. One thing, though, is nearly universal: An astrobiology career begins in a different scientific discipline.

Training to Join the Search

Hardly any universities offer astrobiology degrees, but there a few, like Penn State and the University of Washington [sources: Dartnell, Lubick]. And you won't find a lot of job-search sites with "astrobiologist" in the drop-down menu.

So getting to astrobiology can be a roundabout path, and it takes forethought. There are basically two main factors to consider: What kind of astrobiology research do you want to specialize in, and in what scientific field will you lay roots on your way to astrobiology?

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While nearly any scientific discipline can overlap with astrobiology, it's a good idea to get into a closely related field, such as astrophysics, astronomy, microbiology or analytical chemistry [sources: Dartnell, Lubick]. If your school offers any astrobiology classes, take them, too, while you fulfill the requirements of your degree.

The second question – which type of astrobiology research do you want to pursue – is tough to answer early on, but it's wise to do so. The best way into astrobiology is by joining an established team, and the best way to win one of those rare positions is by tailoring your own work to suit the team's area of research [sources: NASA, Dartnell]. So explore the various projects astrobiologists are working on and figure out what interests you most. Then contact the team's principal investigator and ask questions [source: Dartnell]. How can you tailor your coursework toward a position there? Are there any Ph.D. positions available? Summer internships you can apply for?

Astrobiology-related internships in general are a huge plus (NASA offers some, too), as are other extracurricular endeavors that put you in the world of astrobiology. Some are highly competitive, like the Josep Comas i Solà International Astrobiology Summer School, offered through a partnership between NASA and the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain [source: NASA]. Others are more open, like the annual Astrobiology Graduate Conference, or AbGradCon. And anyone can subscribe to the Web-based NAI Seminar Series, in which astrobiologists discuss their work [source: NASA].

If all goes according to plan, you'll make your way into an exclusive field -- one based on answering the biggest questions faced by humanity. What is life? How did we get here? Are we alone in this huge universe?

At the moment, we could be, as no one has yet found scientifically valid evidence of extraterrestrial life [source: NASA]. But who knows. The next generation of astrobiologists could uncover microbes on Titan or decode a radio signal sent by intelligent life in a galaxy far, far away.

For now, though, MAVEN circles Mars, sampling the atmosphere for clues to habitability, planetary change and the universe driving it all.

Author's Note: How Astrobiologists Work

I was able to mention the May 2014 SETI testimony before Congress only briefly here, but it's pretty exciting. For those interested in the reasoning behind SETI's work in general and where they believe the search for life is heading, it's definitely worth a further look. The complete written statement submitted to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is available here.

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