Searching for Life in the Solar System ... And Beyond

A Research Discussion Meeting
London, UK - 31 October 1996


Paul Murdin, BNSC & PPARC

The searches for extra-solar planets and extra-terrestrial life are of great scientific and intellectual interest in their own right. Moreover, the discovery and study of extra-terrestrial life would transform biology by giving a second form of life to compare and contrast with our own. The discovery and study of extra-solar planets and extra-terrestrial life a challenge for technology.

The UK has research capabilities in areas of interest. Extra-solar planetary systems around pulsars can be studies by timing methods with the Jodrell Bank telescopes. Other systems orbiting solar type stars can be found by radial velocity variations measured by large telescopes (such as the AAT, WHT, Gemini), although the series of measurements takes a long time. Astrometric measurements can also reveal the existence of planets around stars and the UK will have access to the ESA High precision (microsecond) interferometer, if it is chosen for a Horizon 2000+ mission.

The history of planetary systems is a part of star formation and evolution, and the solid materials are warm, emitting infra-red, and the UK has access to a wide range of IR facilities (UKIRT, GEMINI, ISO, FIRST, and the ESA IR imaging interferometer, if that is chosen). Scattered light from planetary discs is studied by polarimetry, the organic chemistry of the associated gas by molecular emission (JCMT, FIRST). The UK is strong in theoretical astronomy including the theories of star formation and of planetary system evolution, including their dynamics and the role of asteroid and comet impacts.

UK space scientists have studied the planets in our solar system, including their structure and evolution. UK space scientists are strong in magnetospheric research, most notably of the Earth (CLUSTER etc). but also of Mars (Mars-96), Jupiter, its aurorae and its satellites (Galileo etc.), Saturn and its satellites (the Cassini/Huygens) mission launched next year) comets and their tails (Rosetta etc.), and in the future probably Mercury in the ESA Mission to Mercury. In the case of Mars the magnetosphere plays a part in the evolution of the atmosphere. UK scientists have participated in the study of the atmospheric conditions of Mars (Mars-96 penetrators) and Tital (Huygens). Planetary chemistry and signs of life have been or are being the subject of analysis in meteorites, comets and Kuiper belt asteroids.

The UK research capabilities are strong in human capital, particularly in the theoretical base and instrumentation and data analysis skills. We have common access to range of ground based facilities (such as La Palma, Hawaii, Australia, Chile) and, as evidenced by this conference, and public interest, a wide cross-disciplinary perspective. Our ESA membership is a strength in giving us access to a programme of mission, and so is our expertise in astronomy - in general, in IR and radioastronomy, in sample analysis, magnetospheric research and instrument development. Our system on competitive access to research grants is a strength which opens resources to talented members of our community.

Our weaknesses in the area of this conference include diffuseness of effort (there is no obvious UK centre for this kind of work), the community is relatively small and there are organisational barriers to cross-disciplinary work.

The future opportunities for our work in this area include not only the ESA programme, but also space bilaterals with NASA, Russia, Japan ..., and, for the ground based observations, the future large telescopes like Gemini, especially with queue-scheduling techniques to make long series of observations possible.

Threats are that our instrumentation skills are weakening and there is of course pressure from other strong(er) UK programmes.

It is encouraging that the facilities to which the UK has access for this programme show strength almost everywhere; it is a matter of worry that the area that shows both strengths and weaknesses is that of the human resource.