SUPA initiative: Astrobiology (Exoplanets)

Astrobiology, the study of Life in the Universe, is one of the broadest and fastest emerging disciplines in science today. It has a wide public appeal because the questions addressed are profound but readily understandable:

  • What is life and how did it start?
  • What conditions are necessary for life to emerge and thrive?
  • Is Earth unique in supporting life?
  • Are we alone in the Universe?

The breadth of the subject requires an inter-disciplinary approach, spanning Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Biology, Climatology, Geophysics, and Information Technology. The SUPA Exo-Planets Initiative sponsors interdisciplinary meetings to foster links across these fields, both within and beyond Scotland.

The Exo-Planet Discovery Era. After centuries of speculation, astronomers at last have found evidence for planets beyond the solar system (exo-planets) and begun to examine their properties. At present over 100 planets, all large gas giants like Jupiter, have been identified orbiting nearby stars, and the pace of discovery is accelerating. The next 5-20 years will be a crucial historic period because of key international facilities. Among these are UK-led robotic telescope networks and wide-field monitoring cameras used to discover new worlds. Today's 8m and tomorrow's 30-100m telescopes, with suitable instrumentation, are capable tools for studies of exo-planet spectra. Upcoming satellite missions (Corot, Kepler, Gaia, Darwin) exploit stable space environments to discover, characterise, and ultimately to take spectra and images of nearby terrestrial and habitable worlds like the Earth. The first small rocky planets like Earth will likely be found within 5-10 years, and the first `habitable' worlds within 10-20. By 2025 we should know whether life exists on nearby Earth-like worlds. Ambitious theoretical work, using computers to simulate the formation of planetary systems and the development of biological molecules needed for life to emerge, is important to place alongside these anticipated observational advances.

SUPA has a nucleus of expertise and rapidly growing track record in planet hunting and studies of planetary system formation.

  • At Edinburgh, the key advantage is the IR-mm detector group at STFC 's, Astronomy Technology Centre ( ATC ), co-located with the University's Institute for Astronomy ( IfA ). Their SCUBA camera made the first pictures of debris disks swept clear by planets areound nearby stars. The ATC expect to lead development of the IR camera for Darwin, which will look for diagnostics of biological activity in planet spectra. A small number of researchers at ATC and IfA are also active in a variety of observational projects, and Edinburgh is recognised by NASA as a node of its Astrobiology network.
  • St Andrews hosts a leading UK group working observationally on exo-planet searches and on theoretical studies of planetary system formation. The world-leading UK WASP experiment is using planetary transits to reveal several hundred `hot Jupiters'.. The UK RoboNet microlens planet search, in collaboration with international teams (OGLE, MOA, PLANET, microFUN), is boosting capabilities for detecting cool planets, with significant sensitivity to cool Earths.
  • Strathclyde has an AstroChemistry group undertaking laboratory experiments to understand how biologically interesting molecules form in the gas phase and on dust grain surfaces in molecular clouds and protostellar disks.

SUPA's Astrobiology (Exo-Planets) Initiative provides an opportunity to bolster and link the exo-planet research teams at St.Andrews and Edinburgh, linking their observational and theoretical programmes with the astro-chemistry group Strathclyde to create an exo-planet research team that is UK leading and world class. The SUPA Exo-Planet Initiative has enabled Scotland to emerge as a world leader in this field.