NASA today announced its selection of Astrobiology Institute Lead
Teams. Included among the six new selections is the University of
Hawaii, with a team lead by Institute for Astronomy researcher
Dr. Karen Meech.

Astrobiology is the study of life in the universe – its origin,
evolution, distribution, and future. It brings together multiple
disciplines in the physical and biological sciences to investigate
some of the most fundamental questions of the natural world:
How does life emerge? How do habitable worlds form and evolve?
Does life exist beyond Earth? The NASA award will bring over $5
million to the University to conduct astrobiological research
over the next 5 years.

“This selection is of special relevance to UH since it capitalizes
on expertise from several areas in which UH is known to be
internationally competitive”, said Dr. Rolf Kudritzki, Director
of the Institute for Astronomy and UH Interim Vice Chancellor for

Astrobiology research programs that will be supported at UH will have
a special focus on water as the habitat of, and chemical enabler for,
life. To be included are observations by astronomers at UH of the
distribution of water in interstellar gas clouds and comets and in
disks around young stars using telescopes on Mauna Kea. Members of
the Department of Chemistry will carry out new types of laboratory
experiments, which will explain how water molecules can form in the
interstellar environment. Researchers in the School of Ocean and
Earth Sciences & Technology (SOEST) will investigate the role
played by water in forming habitats for life in our Solar System
and on planets around other stars. Earth-based studies will
investigate the role played by water in forming the diversity of
rocks and minerals. The UH Lead Team will also explore aquatic
habitats for life in extreme environments in and around the
Hawaiian Islands and will develop instruments that may one day be
used to search for life elsewhere in the solar system.

“This is an exciting opportunity for UH scientists who have been
studying various aspects of Astrobiology to integrate our research
into a broader understandings of our origins”, said principal
investigator Dr. Karen Meech, “We are all tremendously excited by
this opportunity.”

This wide range of research topics will be spearheaded by an
interdisciplinary team of UH scientists, including members from
the Departments of Chemistry, of Geology and Geophysics, of
Information and Computer Sciences, of Oceanography, and from the
Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and the Institute
for Astronomy. The program also incorporates a substantial
Education/Public Outreach component, and will build strong
relations with the community through a vigorous outreach program
for educators and the public. “This is a perfect example of how
the different branches of the University can work together to
enhance our understanding of the natural world” said UH
Chancellor Peter Englert.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute is an international research
consortium with central offices located at NASA’s Ames Research
Center in California’s Silicon Valley. NASA Ames is the Agency’s
lead center for astrobiology, the search for the origin, evolution,
distribution and future of life in the universe.

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