Retrospective of the ‘Basics of Astrobiology’ Workshop

An enthusiastic crowd of students, researchers, speakers and organisers. (University of Vienna)

A workshop session by Prof Inga Kamp. (University of Vienna)

Banner of the astrobiology workshop. (University of Vienna)

A summer school on “Basics of Astrobiology” was hosted in association with IAU Symposium 345. On 17-18 August 17th and 18th, more than 80 international researchers met with twelve expert speakers at the Department of Astrophysics of the University of Vienna to learn about the processes that lead to life in the universe.

The summer school connected various sciences together to discuss the intricate mechanisms, feedback loops and timescales required for life. The scientific areas discussed during the two days included astrophysics, space sciences, geophysics / Earth sciences, atmospheric sciences and pre-biotic chemistry.

Manuel Güdel (University of Vienna) opened the school by explaining the aims of the science of astrobiology, its historical development, and the key international organisations that foster collaborations across the disciplines. Theresa Lüftinger (University of Vienna) then explained how the central star acts as the engine to drive many processes on terrestrial planets. A key factor are magnetic fields that induce high-energy radiation and probably also stellar winds.

The planets themselves form in protoplanetary disks. Inga Kamp (University of Groningen) explained how disks evolve and act as chemical factories in which chemical reactions can lead to crucial pre-biotic molecules.

Additional speakers explained how planets form starting in protoplanetary disks. Working from different perspectives, Nader Haghighipour (University of Hawaii-Manoa) and Eiichiro Kokubo (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) discussed the intricate processes that build  micrometre dust into planets, and pointing to barriers in planetary growth that remain to be understood. They further explained how transport of water to a terrestrial planet involves complex collisions between planetesimals.

Doris Breuer from DLR / Berlin presented our knowledge of planetary interiors and in particular the appearance of water inside planetary bodies and on their surface. She focused in particular on the question of plate tectonics and the requirements for such processes to start.

The summer school closed with Jorge Vago from ESA / Netherlands discussing the efforts to search for life in the solar system, with a special focused on Mars exploration. The next few

years will bring new attempts and new methods, including drilling into the ground to search for organic matter and perhaps even primitive life forms.

The day concluded with a highlight of another kind: A visit to a traditional local restaurant in the vineyards of Vienna, a so-called Heurigen. Refreshing drinks and a diverse selection of food motivated participants to make the evening long and the night short!

The next day started with a presentation on the star formation process at galactic scales. Bruce Elmegreen from the United States informed the audience about how the ISM turns into molecular clouds that converge to filaments in which eventually stars and their disks form and evolve. Manuel Güdel got back to stellar physics explaining how two seemingly disconnected issues, namely stellar rotation and habitable atmospheres of planets, are actually closely related.

Addy Pross from Israel then went into a detailed discussion of new ideas about how pre-biotic chemistry manages to build up complex molecules that eventually become self-organised living things. He introduced the concept of dynamical kinetic stability, which is rooted in continuous reproduction, as opposed to thermodynamic stability.

Vladimir Airapetian from the US could unfortunately not attend in person but delivered his presentation via a video session. He connected atmospheric chemistry and stellar output with the evolution of the formation of habitable environments on a planet.

The summer school was concluded with a visit to the Vienna Natural History Museum, which has the largest meteorite collection on display in the world. The director of the museum, Christian Koeberl, gave a lively introduction into impacts on Earth, their traces and new findings. All participants then had the opportunity to visit the meteorite collection and get additional information.

The summer school was very successful and enjoyable. Given the limited space available, organisers had to select participants on a first come – first served basis, from a total of about 190 applicants. There was a good mix of people from all around the world in attendance.

Sometimes the little things matter tremendously! The school was made even more enjoyable by rich coffee breaks and meals organised by the two institute secretaries, Jeannette Höfinger and Linda Gleissner. A big thank you to both! Many thanks also to the local organising committee, the speakers, Bruce Dorminey (US) as the press representative, Laurence Honnorat (Fr) who recorded the presentations that will soon be online and Thilina Heenatigala (Sri Lanka) representing EUROPLANET, which offered generous financial support for the summer school.

THERESA LÜFTINGER is a senior scientist at the University of Vienna – Department of Astrophysics, working on magnetic fields of cool and hot stars, their modelling via Zeeman / magnetic Doppler imaging and interactions with planetary environments.