Practicing for Mars in Israel, Ancient Lunar Life, and More Astrobiology Notes from Vienna

Scientists from German-speaking countries convened in Austria to present their latest research results.

Workshop attendees in Vienna, not a bad place to discuss life beyond Earth.

Close to 50 scientists gathered this week for the fourth workshop of the German Astrobiology Society, which was held at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, giving the meeting a special Austrian flair. While the workshop was mostly for German-speaking scientists, all of the technical program was in English.

The technical sessions started with a talk by Gernot Groemer from the Austrian Space Forum, who introduced a program called AMADEE. Its objective is to develop the protocols and procedures that will be required for human operations on Mars, and to test equipment that future Martian explorers might need. The program’s next field season, called AMADEE 2020, will be in cooperation with the Israel Space Agency in October-November 2020, with its objective to conduct an integrated Mars analog mission in the Negev Desert.

Bernd Dachwald from Aachen University in Germany gave a talk on key technologies and instrumentation for the subsurface exploration of ocean worlds such as Europa and Enceladus, while Mickael Baqué from the German AeroSpace Center spoke about the effect of solar radiation on biosignatures in salt nodules from the Atacama Desert in Chile. His research should be very useful for interpreting data from ESA’s ExoMars Mission, which is scheduled for launch next year. Salt nodules are particularly interesting because they provide the last refuges of life in the driest area of the Atacama. The same might be true on Mars.

An intriguing new way to detect life was the subject of a presentation by Max Riekeles from the Technical University Berlin. The approach he advocates is based on how microbes move in their environments, which is very different from random movements of inert particles, and especially revealing for pathogens. Riekeles developed an algorithm that can track microorganisms and use their type of movement as a biosignature.

Laura Jentzsch, also from the Technical University Berlin, received the society’s first prize for her talk on experiments she is currently conducting about a possible brief habitable period on our Moon 3.5 billion years ago. And Tetyana Milojevic from the University of Vienna discussed her work searching for microbial fingerprints in meteoritic material—techniques that might become very important for Martian meteorites, currently the only samples from Mars that we have. It’s safe to say that all the attendees at this very lively and stimulating workshop hope this won’t be the case for long.