When NASA’s Pathfinder mission landed
on Mars in 1997, public interest soared. The space agency was
nearly overwhelmed by phone calls and emails from citizens who
wanted to know what the rover was finding on the Red Planet.
Some asked about the planet’s mineralogy; others inquired about
Martian weather. But an overwhelming fraction were interested
in something else — namely, life.

Was there ever life on Mars? Do microorganisms live today
in the soil, deep rocks, permafrost or polar ice caps of Mars?
Are we really alone…? That’s what people wanted most to learn.

No one yet knows if life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, but
researchers in the field of astrobiology are growing ever more
certain of how and where it might be found.

This fall, NASA will join NATO in sponsoring a NATO Advanced
Studies Institute (ASI)
entitled "Perspectives
in Astrobiology
” to be held in Crete from September
29 through October 10, 2001. The Institute will bring together
distinguished lecturers from around the world who will share
what they have learned about astrobiology in recent years with
students and with one another.

The preliminary list
of speakers
includes astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who brought
attention to the possibility of biomaterials in interstellar
space; Nobel Prize winning biochemist Baruch Blumberg, head of
the NASA Astrobiology Institute; Thomas Gold, who accurately
predicted that organisms would be found deep within Earth’s crust,
and David S. McKay, who pioneered the study of microfossils in
the Martian meteorite ALH84001.

Astrobiology is a multidisciplinary field encompassing life
on Earth in extreme environments as well as the "distribution
of possible life on other bodies within the solar system and
within the cosmos,” says Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist
at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and one of the Institute’s
three organizing directors. The practitioners of astrobiology
include biologists, geologists, paleontologists, geochemists,
astronomers — it seems that no field of science is immune to
the lure of astrobiology!

"Astrobiologists,” says Hoover, "are interested
in what kinds of lifeforms live in very high temperatures, such
as geysers and hydrothermal vents, and what kinds of lifeforms
can be found living in very low temperatures, like in permafrost
in Antarctica.” Extreme-loving microbes that thrive in such
harsh environments on our own planet could reveal how alien life
might survive on other worlds where conditions are even more

"What we’re bringing together are distinguished lecturers
who will make extensive presentations on their own subject,”
says Hoover. The presentations will typically last an entire
morning or afternoon with forty to sixty students in attendance.
Advanced Study Institutes, says Hoover, are aimed at those on
a doctoral, post-doctoral level, or beyond.

They will be able to learn from David McKay of NASA’s Johnson
Space Center, for example, who plans to discuss the most recent
findings on the Allan Hills meteorite ALH84001 — a rock from
Mars that landed on Earth 13,000 years ago and holds tantalizing
clues to ancient Martian microbial life.

"We have really detailed data on tiny
magnetite crystals in ALH84001
that show they’re identical
to magnetites made by bacteria on Earth,” says McKay. The
magnetite crystals have an unusual hexaoctohedral shape, and
they contain no impurities at all. If you try to make such magnetites
by inorganic precipitation, he says, any available minor elements,
like manganese or magnesium, are always incorporated into the
crystal structure. The pure crystals in the Mars meteorite appear
to have a biological origin.

McKay believes it’s possible that present-day bacteria on
Earth and ancient bacteria on Mars could be related. He points
to the many studies showing that, due to meteorite impacts, Mars
and Earth constantly trade material back and forth. "There’s
probably half a dozen or more Mars meteorites that fall to Earth
every year," he noted.

McKay’s work is just a sampling of the exciting topics speakers
will address. The growing list of scheduled lectures is posted
at the Institute’s web

An Advanced Study Institute, says Hoover, differs significantly
from a conference. Intended as a high-level course, it’s designed
to encourage interaction among the participants. Everybody will
stay together for the entire time. "We’ll live in the same
hotel and we’ll eat meals together,” says Hoover. In an
ASI participants have the ability to get to know each other,
and to develop collaborations and working relationships.

During the ASI, says Hoover,
advanced students will present scientific papers detailing their
own research, which may be published (after peer-review) in the
NATO ASI Volume "Perspectives in Astrobiology."

Study Institutes help break down the barriers of language and
distance that sometimes separate international scientists. "A
specific aspect of these NATO courses,” explains Prof. Em.
Roland Paepe (Free University of Brussels), an expert on permafrost
and an Organizing Committee Director of the ASI, "is that
they include participants from both NATO and NATO partner countries.”
That’s significant, he says, because it can be hard for researchers
to find out what’s going on in other places.

Dr. Alexei Rozanov, Director of the Paleontological Institute
of the Russian Academy of the Sciences, regards the Astrobiology
ASI as a significant step. Rozanov, another ASI Organizing Committee
Director, co-founded the field of Bacterial Paleontology — the
study of fossil microbes. "It’s necessary,” he says,
"to start educating young students to study astrobiology
and bacterial paleontology,” he noted. The conference in
Crete, he believes, will help make this happen.

David McKay says he’s seen a tremendous spurt in the interdisciplinary
science. It’s been great, he says, to get the biologists to talk
to the geologists, for example. "That’s really what’s created
the field of astrobiology.” And the field, he thinks, will
continue to advance.

McKay’s own cutting-edge research has played a role.
"Ultimately, whether [our work] is right or wrong, we have
spurred this great effort of interdisciplinary science,”
adds McKay. He sees the ASI as important because it will encourage
this growth. "I see it as an exciting place, to bring in
people and mix in a lot of ideas, and stir up some intellectual

Organizers of the Advanced Study
Institute are still accepting applications from prospective students.
If you are interested in attending and contributing to the "intellectual
ferment," don’t wait because
the application deadline is April 15, 2001. Click
here to apply