Astrobiologists are scientists studying the possibility of life in space, and what life needs to survive.
Astrobiologists try to understand what the requirements for life are, where potential habitable environments are in space, how organisms respond to extreme environments, and how might be able to detect signs of life on other planets.
Astrobiology is a multidisciplinary topic that brings together many branches of science, including astronomy, astrochemistry, astrobiology technology, biology, chemistry of life, development of life-forms in other environments, extremophiles, geomicrobiology, habitable zones, humans in space, life's origin, Mars, meteorites, microbial communities, public engagement, SETI. And probably more.
So, the job of an astrobiologist varies depending on their background.
If their expertise lie in microbiology then they might study how microbes respond and adapt in extreme environments on Earth that are analogues of environments in space. For example, there are vents at the bottom of the ocean where there is no sunlight, but organisms have adapted to get their energy from the water heated by magma under the surface. Astrobiologists think that a similar process could have occurred on Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter.
On the other hand, if their background is in astronomy they might use their understanding of how elements are created in stars and how planets are formed to estimate whether exoplanets lightyears from Earth might be able to support life.
As an astrobiologist you might:
Design experiments to detect organic molecules that could indicate life. These experiments might become part of a future rover or spacecraft.
Run simulations to model how molecules and organisms might react in different environments, and how those environments might evolve over time.
Visit locations on Earth like the desert or the ocean where conditions are similar to those in space to investigate what organisms live there.
Examine data from planets inside and outside of solar system in order to work out their chemical composition and what environments exist there.
Perform tests on samples in a laboratory to see what chemical reactions occur in different conditions, and whether organisms survive.
Produce proposals outlining the reasons why your experiments should be funded and flown in space.
Routes to being a Astrobiologist
Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary subject that requires a good understand of many topics across biology, chemistry, and physics. An important thing to remember is that many things related to astrobiology will not be labelled ‘Astrobiology’ because they relate to other subjects too.
There are very few undergraduate astrobiology courses, but many universities include astrobiology modules as part of other courses such as biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, or geology. Check the course descriptions and available modules before settling on a degree course. Which course you should do really depends on your interests and where your strengths lie.
Once you’ve graduated you can get a postgraduate degree (either an MSc or a PhD) specialising in astrobiology.
If you want to give astrobiology a try before you decide about a degree, try one of the online courses below.
How to Become an Astrobiologist – An article full of useful advice fromby leading British astrobiologist Dr Lewis Dartnell.
Astrobiology Society of Britain – The ASB is the UK’s leading astrobiology organisation. On their website you can find more information about astrobiology, reviews of books, and details of their events. Student membership of the ASB is £10.
European Astrobiology Network Association – The EANA is the European astrobiology association. Their website includes an astrobiology wiki, and a collection of introductory videos.
NASA Astrobiology Institute – The NAI promotes astrobiology in the United States. Their website has a information about the latest research in the field, as well as details of courses and other events.
Australian Centre of Astrobiology – The NCA promotes astrobiology in Australia. Their website includes Virtual Field Trips that allow you to experience a real expedition first hand.
Canadian Astrobiology Network – The CAN is an network of institutions and researchers across Canada who are actively engaged in astrobiological research.
edX: Super-Earths And Life – A free 6-week course from Harvard University that gives an introduction to alien life, how we search for it, and what it teaches us about our place in the universe.
Coursera: Emergence of Life – A free 8-week course from the University of Illinois covering the emergence of life on Earth and whether there might be life elsewhere in the universe.
Coursera: Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life – A free 5-week course from the University of Edinburgh about the origin and evolution of life and the search for life beyond the Earth.
Astrobiology Short Course – An interactive website created by Montana State University design to give you an introduction to Astrobiology that you can work through at your own pace and return to at any time.