AAS 204th Meeting, June 2004
Session 94 Cool Astronomy for Everyone
Special Session, Thursday, June 3, 2004, 2:00-3:30pm, 710/712

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[94.01] Astrobiology: Not Just Little Green Men

D. Morrison (NASA Astrobiology Institute)

Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This new (or at least newly-named) discipline responds to current opportunities to make significant progress on basic questions such as Where did we come from? Are we alone? Can we live on other planets? Every astronomer knows that these questions are frequently asked by the public, along with questions concerning the origin, dimensions, and ultimate fate of the universe itself. What makes curiosity about life in the universe so interesting is that we have some of the tools today to provide answers. Infrared and microwave telescopes characterize the complex chemistry that accompanies the birth of planetary systems. Concepts of planetary habitability emerge from exploring the extremes of life on Earth. We probe the nature of life itself through genetic and genomic insights into heredity and evolution. Our spacecraft are exploring Mars, Europa, and Titan, with the explicit goal of searching for evidence of life, past or present. And the discovery of exo-planetary systems greatly increases our opportunity to explore the diversity of planets and identify other habitable worlds. In addition to its interest as a research field, astrobiology provides an exciting medium for communicating science to students and the public. The questions studied by astrobiologists resonate with non-scientists. Astrobiology is also a popular subject for general-education college science courses. Its interdisciplinary techniques illustrate different ways of doing research such as exploration science versus hypothesis-driven science, or laboratory studies that are complementary to field work or historical science. All of these aspects make astrobiology a "cool" topic, and it will become even more exciting when we find evidence of life on Mars or discover earthlike planets beyond our solar system. (Supported by the NASA Astrobiology Program)

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