The study of the origin, distribution and evolution of life in the universe is all encompassed in the field of astrobiology. Few fields of scientific merit require as much interdisciplinary expertise as astrobiology.

Recently, Malta marked its first academic venture into astrobio­logy when an informal group of lecturers and students submitted four abstracts to an international astrobiology conference. The group is composed of Prof. Kristian Zarb Adami and the present author, a PhD candidate, from the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy, Prof. Joseph Borg from the Department of Applied Biomedical Science, Maria Aquilina, a BSc student in Physics and Mathematics, and Dr Sandro Lanfranco and MSc candidate Andrea Bellia from the Department of Biology.

The first of the four studies submitted is an investigation of tardigrades and their evolutionary history. Tardigrades are an example of an extremely tolerant organism, capable of withstanding ex­tremely harsh conditions. A look at the tardigrades’ ancestors could provide a better idea of why their extreme tolerance evolved in the first place, and whether this can be traced to specific events or conditions. In doing so, the tolerance exhibited by tardigrades can be better understood.

Another study looks at the evolution of the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as the sun becomes a red giant. Titan is the only moon in our solar system that harbours a substantial atmosphere. The Saturnian moon has an atmospheric chemical composition similar to that on Earth around four billion years ago, when the first known life forms emerged on our planet. It is of interest to determine whether Titan will eventually heat up enough, as the sun becomes a red giant, to render it even closer to primordial Earth. Understanding Titan under such conditions could provide clues as to the origin of life on Earth.

A third study aims to determine the effect of different radiation regimes on eubacterial genomes. Specifically, only ra­dio frequencies have thus far been used by this group to determine whether a response is elicited in the genetic makeup of a particular strain of Escherichia coli bacteria. This pilot study is intended to be taken further, to investigate the effects of different forms of radiation on different genomes, pertaining to eubacteria, archaea and other organisms.

The final study proposed by the group involves the investigation of possible metacommunity dynamics in the solar system. This field involves the application of concepts already used to study species transfer and interactions between different communities on the Earth’s surface, with isolated rock pools providing a suitable analogy for isolated habitats (planets, moons and asteroids) in the solar system.

This study would aim to determine the possibility and likelihood of transfer of species following some event which results in the possibi­lity of species migration, such as asteroid collisions, resulting in ejecta released from a planet’s surface and landing on another body.

Josef Borg is currently a PhD student at the Institute of Space Sciences and Astronomy of the University of Malta, and also the president of the Astronomical Society of Malta.

Did you know?

• Tardigrades can survive up to around 5,000Gy of radiation. Tardigrades are one of the most radiation-tolerant organisms known to science. Humans can only survive up to 5-10Gy of radiation, at which point the radiation dose is oftentimes lethal. Tardigrades can however tolerate around 500-1,000 times this radiation dosage.

• Titan’s atmosphere is composed of nitrogen and methane, with other trace gases. With an atmosphere of around 95 per cent nitrogen and five per cent methane, Titan has the closest atmospheric composition to a past Earth - some four billion years ago, our planet had a very similar atmosphere. Even its atmospheric density is somewhat similar to Earth’s, with an atmospheric pressure around 1.5x that found on present-day Earth.

• You can observe shooting stars on any clear night Although meteor showers provide the best chance of observing meteors, with an increased number of meteors visible over the course of a single night, the Earth is constantly colliding with small pieces of rock. Such sporadic meteors can provide spectacular views as well.

Sound bites

• China unveils ambitious moon mission plans for 2024 and beyond: China has a mission operating on the far side of the moon and is preparing to launch another this year to collect lunar samples. Chang’e 6, a backup mission for this year’s sample-return launch, is scheduled to head to the moon in 2023 or 2024. Chang’e 7 is planned to launch around 2024 with the dual aims of landing on the south pole of the moon and closely studying the region from orbit. An eighth mission is also in the works for later this decade.

• Elon Musk says SpaceX’s first Starship trip to Mars could fly in four years’ time: SpaceX is almost ready to start building a permanent human settlement on Mars with its massive Starship rocket. The private spaceflight company is on track to launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars in as little as four years from now, SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk said on October 16 at the International Mars Society Convention.

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