AstrobiologyOU is research group of over 50 staff and students who work together to understand how, and where, life might be found beyond Earth and the scientific and ethical challenges faced by astrobiology-related exploration missions.
AstrobiologyOU work across four key themes:
- Finding evidence of life – identifying habitable environments, signatures that life may leave behind, and ethical implications of looking for, and finding life.
- Planetary protection – the science and regulation involved in protecting the Solar System from contamination.
- The Earth as an analogue – using locations on Earth, their chemistry and biology to understand potential for life beyond Earth, similar to those in space, investigating terrestrial microbial communities in extreme environments, and understanding and regulating the impact of this work on the local human communities.
- Societal impacts – including understanding the impact of our work on local human communities, and the application of AstrobiologyOU’s research to meet societal needs.
These themes are addressed through dedicated, interdisciplinary teams with expertise in biology, chemistry, physics, Earth and environmental sciences, social science, geography, education and law.
Our research funding is from Research England, The Science and Technology Facilities Council, the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the European Union and the Leverhulme Trust.
- AstrobiologyOU has over 50 members of staff and about 15 PhD students. Our researchers are drawn from four Schools and three faculties.
- We offer access to state-of-the art laboratory facilities. Our research is supported by an excellent technical and administrative team, including for science engagement and communication.
- Several of our researchers are involved in key astrobiology-related missions and in developing international planetary protection regulations.
- AstrobiologyOU expanded to its current size through a £6.7million investment from Research England and its ‘Expanding Excellence in England’ programme, and is supported by The Open University as a key research area for growth.
- Specific astrobiology research degrees are advertised through the four Schools associated with the Group, and students benefit from being members of multiple research communities.
- We have regular Research Group meetings, seminar programme, informal coffee and other social events.
Most of our full-time research students are based at our Milton Keynes campus; for details of residence requirements for different modes of study see Full-time study and Part-time study.
Our research cuts across discipline areas, and benefits from access to support and facilities across a number of OU faculties and Schools.
Science-based PhD projects benefit from an extensive suite of laboratories on campus, housing advanced analytical instrumentation and simulation facilities.
The state-of-the-art Astrobiology laboratories accommodate microbiology, molecular biology, geochemistry and environmental chemistry. They also include bespoke Parr continuous-flow pressure reactors that can be used to simulate a variety of space environments over a range of temperatures and pressures.
To complement these reactors, we have an array of instrumentation designed to grow microorganisms from extreme, mostly anaerobic, conditions; from anaerobic chambers to a dedicated gas purging station for making media, to bioreactors that can be used to grow continuous cultures.
To extract and identify microorganisms from extreme environments we use molecular techniques, and also have a dedicated low biomass nucleic acid extraction facility for working with these samples.
The laboratories include analytical instrumentation such as gas chromatography techniques, and access to instrumentation, such as electron microscopy, are available via School and Faculty facilities.
Our PhD graduates have gone on to build successful research careers internationally or have applied their skills to industry or education. The interdisciplinarity of astrobiology equips students with many specialist and transferable skills, including critical thinking, creative problem solving and working in collaboration with others.