Scientists meet in Edinburgh to discuss progress in the search for alien life.

The origins of life in our galaxy and the ongoing search for alien life outside our solar system will be at the forefront of discussions this week (8th – 10th Oct) when scientists gather at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory for this year’s Annual Workshop. Members of the public will also have a chance to hear about some of this exciting research in this year’s public talk ‘Are we alone?’

Recent developments in astronomy mean there are now more than 300 planets known beyond our own Solar System (exo-planets). More of these exo-planets are likely to be discovered with the completion of instruments such as SCUBA 2, a camera to detect dust from the earliest phases of the formation of galaxies and, in the near future, the James Webb Space Telescope – an orbiting telescope to catch the first light of the Universe.

The existence of exo-planets raises the possibility of life outside our own solar system, in addition to possible non terrestrial life in this solar system. Scientists are asking how we can observe and study exo-planets and assess their potential for hosting life, what we understand about life in our own solar system, what extreme conditions can life exist under, what are the signatures we can observe that will reveal life and how can we search for signals from intelligent life?

The aim of the workshop is to gather researchers from areas including astrophysics, geophysics and biology to discuss astronomical instruments, both present and future, and laboratory based experiments studying extreme environments. The workshop will have 5 sessions, over 3 days, with key speakers in Astrobiology, Atmospheric Physics and Astrophysics, from Universities across the country and several international institutions.

Professor Ian Robson, Director of the STFC UK Astronomy and Technology Centre (UKATC), the national centre for astronomical technology, housed at the Royal Observatory, said, 'The UK ATC is a world-leader in designing, building and delivery facility-class instruments to the world's greatest observatories, seeking answers to the most fundamental of questions regarding our Universe. The search for life is truly one of these and so the UK ATC is very enthusiastic in taking a leading role in developing such capability.'

This year’s public lecture, ‘Are We Alone?’ will be given by Professor Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Science at the Open University, a prominent speaker in astronomy and planetary science and this year’s keynote speaker.

Professor Grady said, 'The past few years have seen advances in several areas, including a better understanding of the mechanisms that lead from simple chemicals to viable cells, a fuller catalogue of the diversity of environments in which extremophile micro-organisms survive, a more complete knowledge of changing conditions on Mars and observation of an increasing number of rocky exo-planets. Together, these advances have helped strengthen the subject of astrobiology, and given astrobiologists a real sense that searching for life beyond the Earth is now an accepted and serious discipline.'


Images:

Vega

Artists impression of planets orbiting the star Vega.

(Picture credit: David Hardy)


Notes for editors:

Contacts:
Tania Johnston
Press Officer, Royal Observatory Edinburgh
Tel: 0131 668 8263
Email: tjo@roe.ac.uk

Images are available from the press office.
1. The Royal Observatory, Edinburgh comprises the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) of the University of Edinburgh and the ROE Visitor Centre.

2. Public Lecture details:

ARE WE ALONE?

Professor Monica M Grady
The question of whether we are alone in the Solar System, Galaxy or Universe is one which has fascinated humanity since the earliest of times. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. The search for life beyond the Earth starts with a look at how and where life arose on Earth, and the type of conditions in which life survives. Where might similar environments exist on other bodies, either now or in the past?
From the deepest depths of the ocean floor to the outermost edges of the Galaxy, Monica Grady explores the potential for life to have arisen in a variety of environmental habitats. Starting with the birth of the Sun from a cloud of dust and gas, through the formation of the Earth, its atmosphere and oceans, she highlights key stages that lead to the emergence of life on Earth. Mars, Europa, the water-rich satellite of Jupiter, and Saturn's enigmatic moon Titan are all described as possible niches in which life might have arisen. Beyond the Solar System, the search for extra-solar planets is considered as a future direction for fruitful exploration.
Since April 2005, Monica Grady has been Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University in Milton Keynes. Prior to that, she was Head of the Meteorites and Cosmic Mineralogy Division in the Department of Mineralogy at the Natural History Museum, and Honorary Professor of Meteoritics at University College London. In 2003, she gave the Royal Institution Christmas lectures on the theme ‘Voyage in Space and Time’.
Wednesday 8 October 6.30pm
Our Dynamic Earth, 112 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AS
Tickets £3

3. Members of the press are invited to attend workshop sessions and the public lecture (including drinks reception after) at no charge. Should you wish to attend please contact Adeline Nicol, on 0131 668 8306, Email: adn@roe.ac.uk

More information about the workshop, including programme and speaker details can be found at http://www.roe.ac.uk/roe/workshop/2008/

Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:
• The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
• The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
• The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh
The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.
The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. Between 2008 and 2009 we will invest approximately £787 million.