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Astrobiology – a roadmap for Pakistan

Promoting astrobiology in Pakistan means promoting science, technology and the atmosphere of dialogue between different communities in the country.
by Dr. Nozair Khawaja, Fabian Klenner

Few questions have been as intriguing throughout human history as those concerning the origin of life. Different people in different eras have been asking questions like how did life start on Earth? What makes our Earth so special to sustain life? What were the conditions that led to the start of life? Is there life elsewhere and what would be the future of life on Earth? To some extent, science has tried to address these questions. However, profound answers are unknown and humanity is still uncertain about all explanations given by science.

To quench the thirst of human curiosity about its own origin, astrobiology has emerged as a branch of science that studies the origin, distribution, search and the future of life in the universe. Astrobiology also involves the study of the origin and evolution of planetary systems. This field of science emphasizes on the search of the main elements of life on other planets including the presence of water, energy sources and a stable environment.

With the advent of technology, the quest for life in the solar system and beyond becomes more important to humanity. Planetary exploration through space missions and large telescopes has widened the scope of astrobiology. People from different walks of science, for example physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, geology and engineering adapt their career pathways towards astrobiology.

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As a multidisciplinary field in its content and interdisciplinary in its execution, astrobiology encompasses all major scientific disciplines. In the current era of space exploration, almost all space missions are sent towards different planetary bodies to know their formation history, atmospheric conditions and structure, and additionally compare them with Earth – the only place known to have life. So far, many places within the solar system have been explored or are considered to be explored in order to unlock the mysteries of the formation of the solar system and the origin of life on Earth.

To explore the cosmic mysteries, developed nations have launched space missions towards different destinations in the solar system. Cassini-Huygens was one of the most successful missions in the history of mankind. Launched in 1997, the space mission rendezvoused Saturn in 2004 and dropped a part of it – the Huygens probe – on the planet’s largest moon Titan. This was the first ever man-made object that has landed on a planetary body in the outer solar system. Since then, the other part of the spacecraft – the Cassini orbiter – had been exploring the Saturnian system.

After 13 years of exploring the gas giant, Cassini was running out of fuel and the mission ended in September 2017. The spacecraft was plunged into the planet’s upper atmosphere to protect its icy moons, Enceladus and Titan, that could potentially have conditions suitable for life.

During its voyage, Cassini unlocked many secrets of Saturn, its rings and its icy moons. Among several other discoveries, two were the most relevant about the planet’s moons from an astrobiological point of view – Titan and Enceladus. Cassini-Huygens found evidence of the presence of lakes filled with liquid methane and observed geological processes on Titan. A complex chemical system of organic molecules was found on this moon where prebiotic chemistry can take place.

However, the most spectacular discovery by Cassini was the plume of water vapour and ice grains emerging from the south pole of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. It was revealed that this tiny moon is geologically active and possesses a subsurface liquid ocean below its icy crust. Later, data from the Cassini spacecraft revealed the presence of hydrothermal activity on the Enceladus rocky core similar to the Lost City Hydrothermal vent system found on Earth where different life forms were discovered. All these findings made Enceladus one of the potential extraterrestrial habitable places in the solar system.

After Cassini, scientists have proposed a number of space missions towards Titan and Enceladus to explore their habitability. Some of the space missions towards these moons are named Enceladus Life Finder (ELF), Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET), Titan and Enceladus Mission (TandEM) and Dragonfly. In addition, the current findings on Enceladus will be useful for a future astrobiological space mission, Europa Clipper, which will travel towards Jupiter’s moon Europa where a subsurface liquid ocean has been predicted by former space missions.

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It is the need of the hour that the latest developments about these space missions and the science behind them should not, at the very least, go unheard in Pakistan. Educational authorities should add a section in the curriculum dedicated for planetary space sciences covering the advancements in the exciting fields of science through space missions.

Credit: NASA

The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) took the initiative to establish the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). Since then, developed countries have followed NASA’s lead to acknowledge astrobiology as a field of multidisciplinary science.

Scientists associated with space agencies are involved in preparing strategies and designing space missions for research in astrobiology. From the cosmic dust in far reaches of the outer space to the depths of oceans on our own planet Earth, scientists are trying to unravel some of the most fundamental societal questions, i.e. what is the origin of humans and is there life elsewhere beyond Earth?

The concept of astrobiology is not new. Before it was acknowledged as a field of science, astrobiology was a part of philosophical discussions between different components of societies. Since the emergence of humankind, the astrobiological questions have already been asked in philosophy, history and theology as a part of social sciences. In this modern era of science, astrobiology intends to bring people under its broad umbrella with a scientific and societal agenda. In fact, being a multidisciplinary field, it might lead to the unification of different sciences in the near future.

The dawn of astrobiology in the world might have a positive impact on developing countries like Pakistan. It would not be wrong to say that there is a significant cultural, traditional, religious and educational discrimination in the society of Pakistan. Pakistan is a country of huge cultural and religious variations. Many sectors of the society want to stick with their traditional thoughts and reject every new approach. On the other hand, some sectors are highly modernized in their imaginations and ways of life. People have different opinions about the evolution of life on Earth and are curious to know about these exciting questions. Knowing the socio-political conditions in the country, astrobiology can help create the atmosphere of dialogue and can bring experts from different sectors of the society on a common platform. Promoting astrobiology in Pakistan means promoting science, technology and the atmosphere of dialogue between different communities in the country.

Public interest to know about life elsewhere offers a tremendous opportunity to educate and inspire future generations of Pakistan. Therefore, a strong emphasis should be given to promote astrobiology in Pakistan through public outreach. This will not only enhance the interest in science and technology but also benefit our society in terms of creating an environment of dialogues. This will also increase the critical and creative way of thinking in all fields of science and arts.

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The Astrobiology Network of Pakistan (ABNP) was established in this spirit. The foundation of this network was laid to represent Pakistan internationally in this exciting field. This network includes experts and volunteers not only from Pakistan but also from Europe and US. Performing outreach activities, providing up-to-date scientific knowledge, participation in educational forums and organizing lectures at every level is the first step to make Pakistan aware of this emerging field of science. Additionally, ABNP provides the opportunity to young minds to write and share their knowledge and thoughts on various concepts of astrobiology. ABNP organizes events and conducts surveys to identify the connection between individual components of the society and its traditional belief system. The network is collaborating with national and international volunteer scientific societies, and providing guidance and career counseling to students of Pakistan in the field of astrobiology.

Both the government and the private educational sectors in Pakistan should plan to add astrobiology in their curriculum. Particularly, ABNP is seeking coordination and infrastructure support at the national level to enhance its capacity for its public outreach programs. It is critical that the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) and leading universities come forward to embrace and promote astrobiology in Pakistan. In this context, ABNP can provide the consultancy on a volunteer basis for developing collaborative projects as pilot initiatives in the framework of astrobiology.

Dr. Nozair Khawaja is a planetary scientist associated with the Free University Berlin, Germany, as well as NASA’s Cassini and future astrobiology space mission Europa Clipper. He is also a science team member of Japanese future space missions Destiny Plus towards an asteroid Phaethon. Recently, Dr Khawaja received the Cassini’s Group Achievement Award from NASA. His research work has been published in the world’s leading scientific journals – Nature and Science. He is also the founder of Astrobiology Network of Pakistan.

Mr. Fabian Klenner is an earth scientist and PhD student at Free University of Berlin, Germany. He is a founding member of the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan and his research is associated with the Cassini space mission and future astrobiology related space missions like Europa Clipper. Amongst other things, he is experimentally investigating astrobiologically relevant organic material. Mr. Klenner was given the Young Researcher Award at the 51st ESLAB Symposium “Extreme Habitable Worlds” by the European Space Agency in 2017.