Skip to main content

Astrobiology and Life Beyond Earth Conference

The Astrobiology and Life Beyond Earth Conference was held April 8th and 9th.
Below are the presentations:

Dr. Erika Gibb:
The Comet-Disk Connection: Could Comets have Delivered the Ingredients for Life?

Dr. Boncho Bonev:
From Comets to Interdisciplinary Science

Dr. William McKinnon:
Astrobiology of Icy Ocean Worlds: Habitability and Habitancy

Dr. Peter Plavchan:
The Golden Age of Exoplanet Discovery
Dr. Avi Mandel:
The Age of Exoplanets: From First Discoveries to the Search for Living Worlds
Dr. Rachel Whitaker:
A Woesian View of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth


Registration Link

“Astrobiology and Life Beyond Earth”
April 8-9, 2016
Conference Schedule

Conference Description: How life originated on Earth and whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are two of the most fundamental and inspiring unanswered questions in science. Recent discoveries of amino acids and other building blocks of life in comets and asteroids suggest that the ingredients for life are abundant and widely distributed in the solar system. The discovery of water in the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system suggests that there are many places in the universe where life could possibly arise.  This conference brings together world-class researchers in the field of Astrobiology to discuss issues related to the search for life in our galaxy as investigated in diverse environments ranging from planets, asteroids, and comets in our own solar system to planets around other stars and the disks of gas and dust from which they formed.

Schedule for Friday, April 8

8:30-9:00: continental breakfast

9:00-9:15: Welcome from Chancellor George, Dean Yasbin, Dr. Gibb
                 Opening/Introduction by Dr. Gibb

Mars Session:

9:15-10:15: “Early Mars: Warm, Wet, and Habitable”
                    Dr. Ray Arvidson
                    James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor
                    Washington University

arvidAbstract: Analysis of remote sensing and in-situ data collected by Mars orbiters and the rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity show that during early Martian history the planet supported rivers, alluvial fans, deltas, lakes, and playas. Steam-charged volcanic explosions were common, with consequent deposition of ash, together with aqueous alteration in hydrothermal systems. Impact events produced craters and liberated ground water, leading to extensive alteration of rim and wall rocks. Many of these ancient environments would have been habitable for microbial systems. The presentation will include an overview of evidence for warm, wet conditions, and focus on a few examples for which orbital and rover-based observations have been be used to generate detailed models for ancient warm, wet, and habitable conditions.  

10:15-10:45: Coffee

10:45-11:45: “The Martian Environment: The potential for Current Life and Habitability of the Red Planet”
                      Dr. David Horne
                      Assistant Teaching Professor
                      Department of Physics & Astronomy
                      University of Missouri – St. Louis

horneAbstract: This presentation will give an overview of the current state of Mars atmospheric and geological research with respect to the search for conditions/environments which may harbor life or evidence of past life on the red planet.  This discussion will also assess the probability of Mars successfully supporting a human expedition based on our current state of knowledge on the presence of key volatiles both in the atmosphere, above and below the surface.

11:45-12:30:  Lunch

Exoplanet Session:

12:30-1:30: “The Age of Exoplanets: From First Discoveries to the Search for Living Worlds”
                    Dr. Avi Mandell
                    Research Scientist
                    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

arviAbstract: In 1995 a pair of Swiss scientists stumbled onto the first clear evidence of a planet around another star.  Since then, the pace of discovery has been nothing short of spectacular.  We now know of thousands of planetary systems, many with multiple planets and some that strongly resemble our own Solar System.  But we are only now approaching a time when we can begin the search for the Holy Grail of Exoplanets: a planet displaying clear signs of a living biosphere and possibly an intelligent species.  In this talk I will take a tour through the highlights of the last twenty years of exoplanet discoveries, and then describe how we are preparing the next generation of telescopes to begin a search for habitable worlds and eventually life among the stars.

1:30-2:30: “The Golden Age of Exoplanet Discovery”
                  Dr. Peter Plavchan
                  Assistant Professor
                  Department of Physics
                  Missouri State University

plavAbstract: Over 1800 exoplanets have been confirmed to orbit other stars over the past 25 years.  This revolution in our understanding of our Universe is driven by a multitude of advances in data analysis techniques and engineering to achieve unprecedented precision and accuracy. I will provide an overview of the several different methods we use to detect these distant exoplanets, and what we've learned from our discoveries about our Universe.  I will conclude with describing exoplanet research projects at Missouri State University. 

2:30-3:00: Coffee

3:00-4:00: Panel Discussion led by Dr. Bruce Wilking

4:00: Planetarium Show

Schedule for Saturday, April 9

8:30-9:00: Continental Breakfast

9:00-9:15: Welcome

9:15-10:15: “Astrobiology of Icy Ocean Worlds: Habitability and Habitancy”
                   Dr. William McKinnon, Professor
                   Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Washington University

mckiAbstract: One of the signature results of NASA's exploration of the Outer Solar System has been the realization that icy worlds can and do contain internal oceans, sometimes maintained by tidal heat. The most internally active of these, Europa and Enceladus, have been studied in detail, and their oceans are in direct contact with their respective rocky cores. So not only may such oceans be habitable, but thermodynamic gradients at their ocean/core interfaces provide opportunities for the origin and maintenance of life. Ocean waters vent to space from Enceladus and may do so from Europa; in Enceladus’ case Cassini has directly sampled “plume” particles and vapor, while Europa is the focus of a new, major NASA mission.

10:15-10:45: Coffee

10:45-11:45: “A Woesian View of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth”whit
                      Dr. Rachel Whitaker, Associate Professor
                      Microbiology and Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois

11:45-12:30: Lunch

Comet Session:

12:30-1:30: “From Comets to Interdisciplinary Science"
                    Dr. Boncho Bonev, Research Associate
                    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Catholic University of America

bonevAbstract: The emergence of the terrestrial biosphere may be linked to delivery of water and prebiotic organic matter from objects like asteroids, comets, meteorites, and interplanetary dust roughly within the first billion years of Earth’s history. A major challenge to astrobiology is to test this possibility and to evaluate the relative contributions from various classes of small bodies. This is a highly interdisciplinary effort, which requires investigating the origin and the reservoirs of water and prebiotic matter in various space environments as well as the transport mechanisms responsible for the hypothesized delivery of the building blocks of life on the young Earth. An important element in this effort is measuring the chemical composition of the volatiles (ices) stored in the nuclei of comets during the formative stages of our solar system.  This talk will show how compositional studies of cometary volatiles are placed in context of understanding the evolution of volatile matter in the early solar system and the possibility for exogenous delivery of the building blocks of life to early Earth. The talk will also highlight how an ongoing cutting edge research in cosmogony and astrobiology is successfully integrated into undergraduate education.

1:30-2:30: “The Comet-Disk Connection: Could Comets have Delivered the Ingredients for Life?”
                   Dr. Erika Gibb, Professor and Chair
                   Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Missouri – St. Louis

Abstract: Planets form in the mid-planes of disks of gas and dust (protoplanetary disks) around young stars. However, these regions are hidden from our view. Comets are remnants from the planet formation process in the outer solar system where the giant planets formed. They were gravitationally scattered by the forming gas giant planets into their current reservoir of either the Oort Cloud or Kuiper Belt. The Oort Cloud is a spherical distribution of comets located ~10,000-50,000 AU from the Sun and the Kuiper Belt is a flattened distribution just beyond the orbit of Neptune. Since their formation nearly 4.5 billion years ago, comets have been frozen in their respective reservoirs, preserving a record of the chemical composition and processing of the early solar system. On issue in interpreting comet compositions is that they may be an end product of a variety of processes that took place during the early solar system. Chemical models of protoplanetary disks may be able to provide key insights in interpretation of comet compositions. This talk will discuss how chemical modeling and cometary observations are being used to address key astrobiological questions.

2:30-3:00: coffee

3:00-4:00: Panel Discussion led by Dr. Bruce Wilking

4:00: Planetarium show


NASA and the search for life