It was good to be back.
After last year’s annual meeting of the German Astrobiological Society had to be canceled due to the COVID pandemic, the workshop was held this week in the city of Essen – live and (mainly ) in person. The presentations were of a high scientific level and some, like the presentation by Panos Adam from the University of Duisburg-Essen, were remarkable.
Adam presented a vision of the history of evolution based on a huge library of genetic data that he gathered. He focused on the ancient metabolic pathway of methanogenesis, which his analysis has evolved independently several times on Earth. I found it interesting that methanol, or wood alcohol – a compound that I think may be an alternative to water as a solvent for life – may have played a central role in some of these pathways. .
Iva Vilovic from the Technical University of Berlin presented her doctorate. work testing theories of superhabitable exoplanets, or planets thought to be more suited to life than Earth. Vilovic is building a device to simulate the spectrum of K dwarf stars, which might be even more likely to host habitable planets than G dwarf stars like our Sun. She also analyzed how the habitability of our own planet has changed over the course of its history. Periods when there was more oxygen in the atmosphere correlate with increased biodiversity and biomass production. But the opposite has been true during periods of rising temperature (relevant, given our current global warming).
The two main lectures were given by Jesús Martínez-Frias from IGEO in Madrid and the Spanish Astrobiology Network, who spoke about current missions to Mars and analog research in extreme environments on Earth, and Frances Westall from CNRS in Orléans, France, who spoke on biosignatures and the search for extraterrestrial life.
A roundtable generated a lot of interest on the alignment of space mission planning with astrobiological themes. The panel included several members of the German Aerospace Center, which works closely with the European Space Agency (ESA). Representatives called for more input in the form of proposals from the scientific community, although most activities in the immediate future appear to be limited to projects being considered for the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway, or perhaps the Moon, when the astrobiological community is generally more interested in Mars or the icy moons of the outer solar system.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this workshop wasn’t the content, but the fact that it was a hybrid of in-person and virtual participation. There were still some restrictions related to COVID, but due to a 3G policy (vaccinated, recovered or tested), participants were again free to mingle normally, for the most part. Most of the attendees (around 80%) attended in person, and it was good to be with colleagues I hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic. It was the real highlight, at least for me – joining old friends and colleagues for dinner, and even going to a bar afterwards for a beer or two. Simple pleasures, but we had gone far too long without them.
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