Bioastronomy 2002: Scientists Look for Life

Jul. 11, 2002

by Seth Shostak - Senior Astronomer

Seth Shostak, astronomer at the SETI Institute, is attending a week-long conference on life in the universe being held in Australia. This is his first report from the scene.

Bioastronomy. Its a nifty word, but is bioastronomy an enthusiastic amalgam of biology and astronomy real science?

There are about 200 researchers who obviously think so. Theyve seriously damaged their travel budgets in order to attend a week-long conference in a little-known corner of Australia, The Whitsunday Islands off the Queensland coast. The expansive title of the conference is "Bioastronomy 2002: Life Among the Stars."

But of course, as any propeller-head will tell you, we dont have convincing evidence for life in the backyard of our solar system, let alone among the stars. Not yet.

However, theres a growing consensus in the scientific community that such evidence could turn up, possibly soon. Its a remarkable change of heart. In the 1970s, we stopped the Apollo missions and our first manned forays into space, mostly for lack of interest. By the mid-70s, the Viking Landers had settled onto the rusty dust of Mars and somewhat disappointingly failed to find the Martians. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress stopped all funding of SETI experiments. Its not fair to say that the Dark Ages had settled in, but looking for cosmic biology wasnt exactly at the top of the charts.

Things change, to misquote the French. Life in space is back in vogue, and this time the enchantment may last. We now know that planets around other suns not only exist, but accompany at least one star in ten. Liquid water could ooze a mere few hundred feet below the martian surface. Massive oceans might hulk beneath the crusts of several jovian moons.

These recent findings suggest that biology could be common in the cosmos. As a consequence, new missions to the planets, new instruments for sniffing the atmospheres of other worlds, and new telescopes for SETI are all either being built or are on the CAD/CAM screens. Astrobiology institutes have sprung up in the U.S., in Europe, and here in Australia.

Scientists are taking this stuff seriously. On the first day of the conference, there was one learned report after the other on how the organic building blocks of life could be formed in the dust around stars either when old stars are dying or when new ones are forming. A speaker mentioned rather off-handedly that each day, roughly two tons of organic material is dropped on Earth from space. Other worlds, around other stars, are presumably being coated with organic molecules as well.

During the course of this week, attendees at this Bioastronomy conference will discuss extrasolar planets, how life got started on the Earth, the evolution of intelligence, SETI, and the search for biology in the solar system. It's an unusual venue: Hamilton Island, a several-mile blob of topography that, together with 73 sister islands, cluster near the coast of Queensland, in northeast Australia. Its a beautiful place quite frankly, and one that most Australians regard as a high-class resort destination. The sun-and-surf crowd might find it hard to believe that hundreds of visitors would opt to spend their days not torture-testing their snorkels on the reef but sitting quietly on folding chairs in a dark auditorium. To these attentive troglodytes, bioastronomy is not only a real subject, but also one of the most exciting things going.