IAU Summer School “Basics of Astrobiology”
August 31, 2018

Summer School “Basics of Astrobiology”, 17-18 August 2018

This guest post has been contributed by Theresa Lüftinger and Manuel Güdel of the University of Vienna, Austria, and members of the SOC and LOC for the “Basics of Astrobiology” Summer School.

Our summer school on ”Basics of Astrobiology”, associated with IAU Symposium 345, was a big success. On Friday and Saturday, 17/18 August, more than 80 international researchers met with twelve expert speakers at the Department of Astrophysics of the University of Vienna to learn about the processes that eventually lead to life in the universe.

The school connected various sciences to discuss the intricate mechanisms, feedback loops and timescales required for life. The scientific areas discussed during the two days included astrophysics, space sciences, geophysics/Earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, and pre-biotic chemistry.

Muriel Gargaud opened the school explaining the aims of the science of astrobiology, its historical development, and the key international organisations that foster collaborations across the disciplines. Theresa Lüftinger from the University of Vienna then explained how the central star acts as the engine to drive many processes on terrestrial planets. A key point are magnetic fields that induce high-energy radiation and probably also stellar winds.

The planets themselves form in protoplanetary disks. Inga Kamp from the University of Groningen explained how disks evolve and act as chemical factories in which chemical reactions lead to crucial pre-biotic molecules.

The next two speakers explained how planets form, starting in protoplanetary disks. Nader Haghighipour and Eiichiro Kokubo discussed the intricate processes that lead from micrometer dust to final planets from different perspectives, pointing to barriers in planetary growth that remain to be understood. They explained how transport of water to a terrestrial planet involve complex collisions between planetesimals.

An enthusiastic crowd of students, researchers, speakers and organizers. 

Doris Breuer from DLR/Berlin presented our knowledge of planetary interiors and in particular the appearance of water inside planetary bodies and on their surface. She focused in particular on the question of plate tectonics and the requirements before such processes start.

The final talk of the first day by Jorge Vago from ESA/Netherlands discussed the efforts to search for life in the solar system, and especially focused on Mars exploration. The next few years will bring new attempts and new methods, including drilling into the ground, to search for organic matter and perhaps even primitive life forms.

The day concluded with a highlight of another kind: A visit to a traditional local restaurant in the vineyards of Vienna, a so-called Heurigen. Refreshing drinks and a diverse selection of food motivated participants to make the evening long and the night short!

The next day started with a presentation on the star formation process at galactic scales. Bruce Elmegreen from the United States informed  the audience about how the ISM turns into molecular clouds that converge to filaments in which eventually stars and their disks form and evolve. Manuel Güdel from the University of Vienna got back to stellar physics explaining how two seemingly disconnected issues, namely stellar rotation and habitable atmospheres of planets, are closely related.

A big astrobiology sandwich at lunch break.

Addy Pross from Israel then went into a detailed discussion of new ideas about how pre-biotic chemistry manages to build up complex molecules that eventually become self-organized living things. He introduces the concept of dynamical kinetic stability that is rooted in continuous reproduction, as opposed to thermodynamic stability.

Vladimir Airapetian from the US could unfortunately not attend in person but delivered his presentation via a video session. He connected atmospheric chemistry and stellar output and its evolution to the formation of habitable environments on a planet.

In the lecture hall.

The school was concluded with a visit to the Vienna Natural History Museum (NHM). NHM has the largest meteorite collection world-wide on display. NHM director Christian Koeberl gave a lively introduction into impacts on Earth, their traces and new findings. All participants then had the opportunity to visit the meteorite collection and get additional information.

The summer school was very successful and enjoyable. Given the limited space available, we had to select participants on a first come-first served basis, from a total of about 190 applicants. We had a good mix of people from all around the world showing up in the lecture all.

The school was made even more enjoyable by rich coffee breaks and meals organized by our two institute secretaries, Jeannette Höfinger and Linda Gleissner. A big thank you to both!  Many thanks also to the local organizing committee, the speakers, Bruce Dorminey (US) as the press representative, Laurence Honnorat (France) who recorded the presentations that will soon be online (linked to our web-page at: http://ninlil.elte.hu/boa/), and Thilina Heenatigala (Sri Lanka) representing Europlanet 2020 RI that offered generous financial support for the summer school.