TUCSON, Ariz. — Young scientists who will lead future searches for the origins of life in the universe will get their introduction to astronomy in Tucson in January.

Tucson’s Life and Planets Astrobiology Center (LAPLACE) will host 29 graduate students from the United States, Australia, Spain and the Netherlands at its Astrobiology Graduate Winter School Jan. 4 – 9, 2006.

LAPLACE, a joint program of The University of Arizona and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), a national and international research consortium that studies the origin, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe. UA astronomy Professor Nick Woolf directs Tucson’s LAPLACE.

The Arizona Board of Regents approved a UA center, also called the Life and Planets Astrobiology Center (LAPLACE) last June. The NAI-funded group is the core of Arizona’s LAPLACE, which seeks to enhance research collaborations between astronomy and astrochemistry and the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, biochemistry and other life sciences departments.

The winter school graduate students are studying topics related to the origins of life on Earth and in the universe at their home institutions, but they are not necessarily astronomers. Many come from the fields of biology, paleobiology, planetary science, chemistry and biochemistry.

“This is a unique opportunity to bring together young scientists from around the country — indeed, from around the world — to get first hand experience in the ‘astronomy’ of astrobiology,” said Michael Meyer, UA assistant professor of astronomy and director of the Astrobiology Graduate Winter School.

“Our main goal is to give students from all disciplines the background they need to appreciate the astronomical constraints on the origin and prospects for life elsewhere in the universe,” Meyer said. “We’ll try to give the students the background they need to become ‘critical consumers’ of astronomy research and to connect what they learn to their own research areas.”

On-campus sessions include visits to UA’s Tree-Ring Laboratory, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Meteorite Lab, and the Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory that produces the largest single-piece telescope mirrors in the world. Off-campus visits include tours of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and Kitt Peak National Observatory.

At UA, students will get practical, hands-on laboratory experience at “fingerprinting” interstellar molecules in an astrochemistry lab. Astrochemistry includes the study of where the building blocks of life come from.

Students will observe with several telescopes on Kitt Peak Friday through Sunday nights, Jan. 6 through 8. They will use the Arizona Radio Observatory 12-meter telescope to search for molecules in interstellar space. They’ll also observe with UA’s 90-inch Bok Telescope, the National Solar Observatory’s McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and the Kitt Peak Visitor Center telescope.

“The clear, dark, dry skies of southern Arizona with easy access to world class research facilities make Tucson an excellent place for this school,” Meyer said.