UW News

June 20, 2019

Looking for life: UW researchers, presentations abound at 2019 astrobiology conference in Bellevue

UW News

What are ocean worlds like? Is life possible inside a planet? What might a faraway technological civilization look like from here? Which planets warrant closer study, and why? And above all: Are we alone?

Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe and of the terrestrial environments and planetary and stellar processes that support it. To study astrobiology is to ask questions that cut across multiple disciplines and could take lifetimes to answer. The field gathers expertise from a host of other disciplines including biology, chemistry, geology, oceanography, atmospheric and Earth science, aeronautical engineering and of course astronomy itself.

These questions also include: What can Earth’s own species, and its chemical past, tell us about how to spot life elsewhere? How did the first cells arise? Can we map the surfaces of exoplanets? How can we motivate students to be curious about space?

Every two years, researchers gather from around the world to share and discuss their latest findings in a weeklong conference. Called AbSciCon2019 for short, this year’s conference will be held June 24-28 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue. It’s the biggest meeting of astrobiologists in the world and dozens of University of Washington researchers will attend and participate.

Public attitudes have warmed greatly toward astrobiology in the 21st century, prompted by exoplanet discoveries and exploration of other worlds in the solar system. Study of extraterrestrial life remains a hopeful science wryly aware that, as an old joke goes, it has yet to prove that its very subject matter exists.

The UW founded its own UW Astrobiology Program program in 1999, involving roughly 30 faculty and about as many students a year. “The program is a leader in both training the next generation of astrobiologists and in fundamental astrobiology research,” said Victoria Meadows, UW professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which explores computer models of planetary environments and will be the subject of a conference presentation.

“The Astrobiology Science Conference is the biggest meeting of astrobiologists in the world, and this year, members of the UW Astrobiology Program are playing a major role in conference organization, as well as presenting our research at the meeting,” said Meadows, who chaired the science committee for AcSciCon2019.

Here are several UW presentations and papers scheduled for the weeklong conference. Though the lead presenter is listed here only, most projects involve the work of several colleagues.

  • A study of water vapor and ice particles emitting from the plume on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, leading to a better understanding of the moon’s subsurface ocean. With Earth and space sciences doctoral student Lucas Fifer and colleagues. (June 24)
  • An examination of whether the coming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to detect atmospheres for all worlds in the intriguing, seven-planet system TRAPPIST-1, and finding that clouds and water vapor in the planets’ atmospheres might make such study more challenging. With astronomy and astrobiology doctoral student Jacob Lustig-Yeager and colleagues. (June 25)
  • Description of a new open-source computer software package called VPLanet that simulates a wide range of planetary systems across billions of years, simulating atmospheres, orbits and stellar phenomena that can affect a planet’s ability to sustain liquid water on its surface, which is key to life. With Rory Barnes and colleagues. (June 25)
  • An exploration of how viruses and hosts co-evolved, enabling microbial life in extremely cold brines. With oceanography professor Jody Deming (June 26).
  • Modeling Earth’s atmosphere 2.7 billion years ago and the effect of iron-rich micrometeorites that rained down, melted and interacted with the surrounding gases, leading to a better understanding of carbon dioxide levels at that time. With Earth and space sciences graduate student Owen Lehmer and colleagues. (June 26)
  • A presentation on the UW Astronomy Department’s successful outreach to students through its mobile planetarium that visits K-12 schools, enabling them to create shows of their own. With astronomy research assistant professor Rory Barnes and several colleagues. (June 26 and 27.)
  • An exploration of how to determine if oxygen detected on an exoplanet is really produced by life, using high-resolution planetary spectra from ground-based telescopes. With Miles Currie, an astronomy doctoral student, and colleagues. (June 26)
  • A discussion of how studying a giant Pacific Octopus might help us learn more about different forms of cognition and better know and understand life beyond Earth — if we ever find it. With Dominic Sivitilli, a doctoral student in psychology. (June 26)
  • A study of microbial life in extremely cold brines within unfrozen subsurface areas of permafrost, and their possible relevance to similar environments on Mars or icy moons in the solar system. With Zachary Cooper, a doctoral student in biological oceanography, and colleagues. (June 26.)

Many other UW faculty members will participate, either with reports on their own research or in support of colleagues or graduate students. These include ESS professors David Catling, Roger Buick, J. Michael Brown, Erika Harnett, Jonathan Toner, astronomy professors Suzanne Hawley, Woodruff “Woody” Sullivan and Thomas Quinn, among others.

Astrobiologists such as Sullivan point out that the field’s focus and scientific benefit is about more than simply hunting for life, though that is the key motivator.

“It’s about thinking about life in a cosmic context. And about the origin and evolution of life,” Sullivan said.

“Even if you only care about Earth life, astrobiology is a viable — fundamental, I would say — interdisciplinary science that thrives independently of the existence of extraterrestrial life.”