It is common knowledge that the major questions in Science (e. g. ‘How did life emerge and evolve on Earth?’) cannot be solved by one scientific discipline alone, but requires an interdisciplinary cooperative effort by scholars from sometimes even seemingly unrelated disciplines like astronomy, biology, geology, chemistry, engineering and philosophy. It is also unlikely that the immense expertise necessary for tackling these questions can be found in any one institution and even within one single country alone. Therefore, a coordinated approach on a higher (European) level is necessary.
Several countries have already responded to this challenge. In the US, a NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) exists since 1998 and a networking activity on the origin of life recently started at Harvard University, while another one on the search for life on Mars has been initiated at the Carnegie Institute. In Australia, the Australian Centre of Astrobiology has a long-standing tradition of excellent scientific work in the field and in Brazil, an astrobiology centre (Núcleode Pesquisa em Astrobiologia) has recently been established. In Europe, the European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA) exists, but does not have any major funding for scientific missions and training schools. National and regional initiatives include the UK Centre of Astrobiology, the Centro de Astrobiología in Spain, the Societé Francaise d’Exobiologie, the Nordic Network of Astrobiology and the Società Italiana di Astrobiologia, but many of these organisations lack funding for largescale cooperative efforts in research, training and outreach. Therefore a COST Action in the field of astrobiology is therefore crucial to allow scientists from all fields to make significant progress in the understanding of the origins of life on Earth and in the preparation of new spatial missions. Moreover, it is essential to educate the next generation of scientists involved in astrobiology field, to organise European training events and to increase outreach activities in the field of astrobiology.
The inherent breadth of astrobiology implies that many of its scientific projects involve cooperation between institutions in different countries. New projects such as large-scale space missions require cooperation between scientists of different disciplines that may not have collaborated previously, e.g. in order to plan new missions, develop payload instruments and to perform post mission data evaluation.
As a general rule, the collaborations between the members of ORIGINS COST Action will ensure an effective use of data and techniques, leading to better-constrained theoretical models and improved understanding of the multiple processes leading to the origin and evolution of life on Earth and possibly on other habitable planets. Short-time scientific missions (STMS) and working group (WG) meetings provided by an open flexible structure like this COST Action are ideal means for fostering such collaborations.
The added-value for each WG and for the special themes of history of science and philosophy,
training and education, dissemination and outreach, which are part of all WGs, are now presented.
1) Understanding the formation and evolution of planetary systems and habitable planets
One of the fastest growing fields in astrobiology (and astrophysics) is that of exoplanets and this vast subject will hugely benefit from a European interdisciplinary synergic effort. Chemical sciences will provide rate constants of photochemical reactions and their dependence on physical parameters, e.g., temperature, which are key inputs for chemical network models of exoplanetary atmospheres. Earth and planetary sciences will contribute on how planetary interior dynamics critically affect volatile outgassing and cycling, and hence the mass and composition of planetary atmospheres. Stellar physicists will investigate how key input parameters, like luminosity, activity and effective temperature, modeling the atmospheric evolution of planets affect the planetary energy budget and the atmospheric escape processes. Planetary scientists will study how planet formation influences initial volatile reservoirs and the proto- atmospheres of planets and will determine atmospheric mass and composition. Finally, engineers will plan future instrumentation for space telescopes to study the atmospheres of rocky exoplanets. These collaborations cannot be organised at a national level and the COST networking structure provides an ideal scheme for securing a leading role for European exoplanet research.
2) Searching for the origins of the building blocks of life
Understanding of the chemical evolution of biomolecules and, subsequently, the first cells, is a vast task exceeding the capabilities of single institutions and national research communities. To understand how the building blocks of life originated from simple molecules, a systemic and transdisciplinary perspective, including astrochemistry, prebiotic chemistry, geology, atmospheric chemistry and engineering is needed. The explicit adoption of this general perspective through intensive, multi-disciplinary collective work and reciprocal exchange of knowledge is a major goal of the Action.
To investigate the formation of biomolecule precursors in space and on planetary surfaces, the Action will create, possibly in association with the Europlanet project, a European Astrobiology Laboratory Network. This Network will focus primarily on astrochemistry and atmospheric chemistry but will subsequently encompass others fields. It will not only share the competences of leading European Research Laboratories, but will also make maximum use of large instruments for astrochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, extraterrestrial sample analyses and laboratory simulations.
The research community working on prebiotic chemistry and related subjects is large, but the importance of cross- disciplinary and trans-domain activities is still not sufficiently recognized. The Action will build a platform to initiate collaboration between experts from different research fields in order to advance our understanding of how life can emerge and develop. In this respect, the international platform provided by this COST trans-domain initiative will help considerably to trigger joint projects that would be otherwise improbable. The duration of the COST Actions provides a sufficiently long timeframe for setting up real collaborations between groups of prebiotic chemists and specialists of other disciplines like geology, planetology, geochemistry and biology.
3) Tracing the origin and evolution of life on Earth and finding its limit
The benefit of a pan-European structure provided by a COST Action is particularly evident in the study of the astrophysical, geological and biological contexts of the early Earth and life in extreme environments. Across the European community, expertise on this theme is diverse and developed at a very high level although there is not much interaction between the individual researchers. In this field, substantial progress can only be expected from a profound and long-lasting collaboration between astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, and geologists. This Action will create a network that will bring these different research groups and disciplines together, to facilitate the exchange of information and learn to “speak one another’s language”, so as to develop new strategies for investigating the first traces of life. This will also result in designing new ways of investigating the early record of life on Earth and elsewhere and sensitize scientists to the particular challenges of the Archaean rock record. Participation of European scientists with different expertise in the study of a set of common extreme biotopes will enable an in-depth understanding of the resilience of life processes that would not be possible in national settings. The open structure of COST will facilitate this effort.
4) Detecting life on other planets and satellites
The detection of life on other planets and satellites is linked to several important sub-questions such as “What is life?”, “How can one detect it?” and “Which evidence can be thought conclusive?”. Inputs from both humanities and life sciences are needed to define “what is life“, whereas biologists and geologists collaborate to detect life in (possibly extreme) environments. These scientists, together with physicists, chemists, engineers and astronomers, can then identify biomarkers for remote detection of life and subsequently develop strategies to detect them on other celestial bodies including exoplanets. The interaction among these diverse and complementary disciplines requires networking. That this networking occurs across different European countries as supported by COST can only help to integrate various thinking traditions into, hopefully, an even greater critical syncretism.
At this particular moment in time, a COST Action would also permit to promote the various programmes on Mars and Jupiter already initiated in several European institutes, thereby contributing to a better return on investment. Such an interdisciplinary programme has been running in the US under the auspices of the NASA-supported NAI-Astrobiology programme for more than a decade and Europe would also benefit from this type of networking.
The only way to obtain the broad, interdisciplinary effort necessary to take advantage of the already existing excellence of European science for answering the above-mentioned fundamental research questions and to place European excellence in the field in the forefront of international science is to create a network, such as a COST Action.