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Research areas
Astrobiology
Io - moon of Jupiter

Astrobiology

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 – including identifying habitable environments, the signatures that life may leave behind, and the ethical implications of looking for, and finding life.
  • Planetary protection – protecting the Solar System from contamination from Earth and protecting the Earth from anything that may be brought back from space.
  • The Earth as an analogue – using locations on 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 international development, engagement, education, ethics and inclusion, and the application of AstrobiologyOU’s research to meet societal needs.

These themes are addressed through dedicated, multidisciplinary teams in science, governance, education and engagement, and international development. Our research is supported by an excellent technical and administrative team, including laboratory and business development staff.

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.

Key facts

  • AstrobiologyOU has over 50 members of staff and about 15 PhD students. Our researchers are drawn from four schools, three faculties, and work in three of the Open University’s Strategic Research Areas.
  • We offer access to state-of-the art laboratory facilities and excellent technical support.
  • 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.
  • 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, informal coffee and other social events.

Location

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.

Facilities

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. The pride of the group are the Parr continuous-flow pressure reactors which 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.

Career prospects

Our PhD graduates have gone on to build successful research careers internationally or 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.

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Education and engagement

Governance

International development

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Related topics

Consider linked topics from other research areas.

Astrobiology, space law and governance

 
 

I combine engineering lab work with science, not only developing my expertise as a scientist but also developing transferable skills for the future.

Zoe Morland
Zoe MorlandPhD Student, Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
 
 

The PhD community is great and working alongside other scientists trying to answer the same question but from a different scientific background gives you an appreciation for other science specialities you yourself do not study.

Rachael Hamp
Rachael HampPhD Student, Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
 
 

The best thing about my research is the freedom to explore new ideas.

Ben Tatton
Ben TattonPhD Student, Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
 
 

If someone has a passion to discover what the limits of life might be, and doesn’t think those limits end at the biosphere of Earth, then astrobiology is for them.

David Slade
David SladePhD Student, Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics