Young scientists search for life in space

If you were to look for life in the universe, it would be a good idea to know what it actually looks like should you stumble across it out there. This is why a two-week summer school for young researchers at Aarhus University is currently in full swing. Astronomers and biologists are at work on topics such as understanding the conditions found in the cosmos.

2014.08.15 | Rasmus Rørbæk Christensen

(Illustration: NASA)

Aarhus University’s Stellar Astrophysics Centre – a Centre of Excellence funded by the Danish National Research Foundation – has invited thirty MSc and PhD students to attend a summer school on the properties of stars and planets, and about living conditions in the universe and how astronomers and biologists study whether life exists out there. In short – what are we looking for?

During the last few years, the Stellar Astrophysics Centre and other international research groups have discovered and studied many planetary systems that could provide conditions for life. However, the fact that the planets are Earth-like is one thing, but whether they have a biosphere is quite another. In other words, whether they are inhabited by living organisms.

The Stellar Astrophysics Centre is among the first research groups in the world to adopt a broadly multidisciplinary approach to space research and to combine studies of the stars and planets with investigations of biology under extreme conditions. While several thousand planets and other stars have been discovered in the universe, the details of the planets are not visible through telescopes when searching for alien beings.

“We’ll probably never see a being traipsing around the surface of an alien planet through our telescopes. But we’ll possibly see the effects of life on a planet. It’s these effects that we’re studying at the Stellar Astrophysics Centre. In order to do so, however, we must have knowledge of a considerable number of parameters regarding stellar systems, stellar life cycles, the temperature and chemical composition of planets, and so on. This is our focus for the next couple of weeks in Aarhus. Astronomers and biologists will learn to speak the same language so that we can become better at determining the properties of distant stars and planets and look for signs of life in space,” explains Professor Hans Kjeldsen, Aarhus University.

The summer school will include many different elements, ranging from a long series of lectures on subjects such as astronomy and astrobiology to hands-on experiments in which students and researchers work together to try to recreate conditions that tell us what we could search for on the surfaces of planets far out in space. They will also carry out a number of observations of remote stars using the brand new SONG telescope, which will be taken into use in a few months.

The summer school is entitled Stars, Planets and Life in the Universe, and it takes place in Aarhus on 10–22 August. On Thursday 14 August, the thirty students will spend the afternoon working on astrobiology in the laboratories.

For more information, please contact

Professor Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Aarhus University
+45 2338 2374
jcd@phys.au.dk

Co-organiser Louise Børsen-Koch
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Aarhus University
+45 3054 1441
louise@phys.au.dk

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