Let’s Get To Know Space Biology (Astrobiology)
For those of you who like watching Korean dramas, of course you have watched ” The Silent Sea “. You may be familiar with the character of Dr. Song Ji-an (Bae Doona), Han Yun-jae (Gong Yoo), and more. For those of you who haven’t watched the drama, Dr. Song is a biologist who studies extraterrestrial life. In the drama, Doctor Song (Bae Doona) is a very famous astrobiologist in Korea. The drama is set in a South Korean research base on the moon. The acting competition played by these actors is certainly very interesting. They are able to solve every problem with the intelligence and thoroughness of both scientists including Doctor Song (Bae Doona).
Of course, some of you are curious about Doctor Song (Bae Doona)’s work as an astrobiological scientist. What exactly is astrobiology and what do they study? For those of you who are interested in the world of outer space, of course you will be curious about one of these branches of biology. In this article we will discuss a little about the definition of astrobiology and also its application in life.
Christopher and Kevin in the journal ” Astronomy and Astrophysics ” in 2005, NASA stated that astrobiology is the study of living things in the universe. This includes learning about extra-terrestrial biology. The purpose of the formation of this branch of science is to find out about life in a place influenced by our knowledge of life on earth. In addition, astrobiology also studies the concept of how evolution and origins can appear on earth. The word Astrobiology was first used by Otto Struve (1995) who was an astronaut (Chyba & Hand, 2005).
Astrobiology comes from the Latin word Astron; star and Bios; life. The word seems similar to astrophysics or astrochemistry. The word is more relevant than the words ” Cosmobiology (order and life) and exobiology (external and living)”. In 2004, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) then gave the name of the science of Astrobiology as Bioastronomy . However, the name is rarely used at meetings or scientific sessions of intellectual forums. Thus, the name astrobiology is considered more relevant today.
For astrobiological scientists there is always a big question regarding,
“What is life?”“HOW DOES LIFE BEGIN AND DEVELOP? IS THERE LIFE BEYOND EARTH AND, IF SO, HOW CAN WE DETECT IT? WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF LIFE ON EARTH AND IN THE UNIVERSE?”
A Brief History of Astrobiology
Daniel Koshland in a book entitled ” The Nature of Life ” in 2002 had a discussion in a scientific forum regarding what “life” is. At first all experts agreed when “life” is the ability to reproduce and it is an important characteristic of life. However, there was another voice on the forum stating “If a rabbit dies. Two male and female rabbits live, but only one of them dies.” This takes a profound conclusion, that there is no simple definition of “life” (Benner, 2010).
Historically, in 1970, NASA tried to look for signs of life on the planet Mars. The scientists set out to culture the microbes and detect metabolic markers using samples from a few centimeters of Martian soil. However, these experiments have not been successful because the chemical compounds and radiation of Mars make bacteria unable to live on the surface of Mars. The failure apparently made the trust of various parties began to decrease in NASA.
The founding of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI)
In the early 1990s NASA experienced rapid progress in the field of research, especially space science. The discovery of the Hubble Telescope also supported advances in the field of astronomy, especially. Finally in 1995, NASA Astrobiology was born with a naming suggestion from Wesley Huntress to describe the study of life in the universe. Besides Huntress, there are 2 other main characters who mastered the founding of NASA Astrobiology, namely France Córdova and Charles Kennel. During its inception NAI ( Nasa Astrobiology Institute ) made an expansion in the term astrobiology which not only covered basic science, but also aimed to understand the limits of earth-based life (Mcmahon & Centre, 2021).
Several NASA scientists re-examined why their project failed in 1970. One of the factors behind NASA’s failure in 1970 was the discovery of microbes that could live in extreme environments (halophiles, thermophiles, and methanogens). This microbial exploration was only discovered in 1977 by Thomas Brock and was named as Archaea (Chyba & Hand, 2005; Mcmahon & Centre, 2021).
It is still a big question mark whether there is life outside the earth. Some scientists continue to have strong suspicions of a planet that has large liquid reserves. As NASA says ” Follow the Water “. Water is a very important component to find a life. In addition, suspicion regarding the existence of a microbe in an extreme region can indicate that there are living things in that place.
“Can we put water on Mars?”
There is evidence that liquid water is unstable under Martian conditions and only appears as a temporary film on hygroscopic salt. Although water ice is widespread in the clouds and several meters above the ground especially at high latitudes. This can happen because every organic molecule in the soil can be degraded by ionizing radiation and oxidized strongly by compounds such as perchlorates.
One of the alleged discoveries of life on the planet Mars is the “habitable zone” and the existence of former water surfaces. The surface of the water has flowed through the planet for a long time. In addition, other supporting evidence is that the water still exists in large quantities and flows underground. Scientists have also found rocks containing compounds such as CO 2 and H 2 , as well as methanogenic gases which are components or characteristics of life (Mcmahon & Centre, 2021).
On the global map of Mars in this image, in epithermal (medium energy) neutrons created from data collected by the Mars Odyssey 2001 spacecraft . Odyssey maps the location and concentration of epithermal neutrons thrown from the Martian surface by incoming cosmic rays. Therefore, the dark blue regions at high latitudes signify the lowest levels of neutrons, which scientists have interpreted to indicate the presence of high levels of hydrogen. The word hydrogen actually denotes a large reservoir of ice and water beneath the surface.
Evidence of Life on Other Planets
Overall it is still possible to find life in the pores and cracks deep beneath the Martian soil. A place on Mars, where harmful radiation can be weakened by the overlying rocks. In addition, geothermal conditions can also maintain liquid water. The search for life on Mars then extends to the past or historical traces. The deep underground surface of Mars is also calculated as a rough guess or hypothesis. This is based on radiometric dating findings at several sites on the planet (Dunbar, 2015).
In addition to Mars, a satellite or moon on the planet Jupiter called Europa also consists of hard ice. The ice crust has a pattern of very long-lived liquid oceans. Although this ocean is at a great distance from the sun, but because of the gravitational interaction between the moon and Jupiter, the ocean remains liquid.
However, to ensure this, NAI will later conduct research to deploy an ice-penetrating radar using a spectrophotometer to characterize its surface. The mission aims to provide further insight into whether there is habitability on icy moons such as Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede.
Education and Discovery
Since its introduction, Astrobiology has become a basic need, especially in the field of astronomy. Every two years the “Astrobiological Science Conference” is held by presenting 800 scientists and more than 30 fields. In addition, friends can also read some findings related to astrobiology through journals such as Astrobiology , published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., and The International Journal of Astrobiology , published by Cambridge University Press. Both journals have good publications and also high quality articles.
At this time, many universities and colleges have opened special departments related to astrobiology. Such as Florida Institute of Technology, University of Washington, The University of Arizona, PennState University, Arizona State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Princeton University, Georgia Institute Of Technology, University of Colorado, Stanford University .
Now are you interested in becoming an astrobiologist? Although it is not an easy job to be like the character of Dr. Song Ji-an (Bae Doona). Of course, it takes hard work and high discipline, especially in the exact sciences such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, and also biology. Although in Indonesia, things related to astrobiology are still rarely found, it is possible that prospective scientists in the field of astrobiology will be born who can make Indonesia proud in the future.
Author: Naufal Ma’arif, Undergraduate Student of Biology Education, FMIPA, State University of Jakarta
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