Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe: extraterrestrial life and life on Earth. This interdisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our solar system and habitable planets outside our solar system, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to changes on Earth and in outer space.
Astrobiology makes use of physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, ecology, planetary science, geography, and geology to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds and help recognize biospheres that might be different from the biosphere on Earth. In this endeavor, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been at the forefront of exploration into the search for life on other planets. In November 2011, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory (MLS) rover, nicknamed Curiosity, which landed on Mars at Gale Crater in August 2012.
Astrobiology is a multi-faceted science involving these disciplines:
- Astronomy- research that entails extrasolar planet detection-the hypothesis being that life could exist on other planets with similar characteristics as Earth
- Biology- one aspect of this science is the study of extremophiles or organisms that are able to survive in extreme conditions. It’s known that organisms do thrive on Earth in ice, boiling water, salt crystals, toxic waste, and acid. Could this be true on other planets which have similar conditions?
- Astrobiology- investigates resources in planetary soils using actual space materials in meteorites
- Astrogeology- concerned with the geology of the celestial bodies such as the planets, and their moons, asteroids, comets, and meteorites
There are many disciplines within the field of astrobiology. Most of the undergraduate programs involve the study of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, and related areas. One school, Florida Institute of Technology, states that they are the first and only undergraduate astrobiology program in the U.S.. This institution contends that astrobiology degree undergraduates are ready for graduate studies in astrophysics, planetary science or biology, as well as careers in the aerospace or biotech-related industries. Whether the student wants to study the effects of space travel on humans, discover past or present microbial life on Mars, or help develop ways to sustain life on the moon, she/he will be well prepared.
Despite the claim made by the Florida Institute of Technology, there are other programs offered in the field of astrobiology. Currently there are over 22 college or universities offering courses in astrobiology in the U.S.. When selecting a degree program, it’s recommended to chose one that is endorsed by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). This is a virtual organization consisting of fifteen teams seated at universities across the U.S. which conduct interdisciplinary research in astrobiology. These teams are engaged in training graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. NAI teams are typically situated within a single department, such as astronomy, geology, or biological sciences.
NASA internships are available to high school through graduate level students attending full-time accredited programs. Applicants must be enrolled in a degree-granting course of study appropriate to NASA’s long-term professional workforce needs. College level interns must maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA. These internships are open to students in a variety of majors ranging from business to engineering.
The majority of opportunities occur at twelve NASA facilities in the states of: California, Ohio, Texas, Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Washington, D.C., Mississippi, and New Mexico. There are fall and spring sessions lasting sixteen weeks and a summer session lasting eight to ten weeks. NASA also has a year-long session greater than sixteen weeks. All internships require U.S.. citizenship.
This is primarily a research career, either at a learning institution, with NASA or related agency. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not list the occupation of astrobiologist. It only refers to the related occupations of physicist and astronomer. For these professions, the BLS has the median annual salary at $106,360 as of 2012 with a doctoral degree. The job growth is expected to be 10% through 2022.
Anyone interested in pursuing astrobiology or any of the complementary sciences, it seems that the internship program is the place to start. Preferably while in high school to see if this is where you wish to begin your undergraduate studies.