22 July 2008

Helmholtz Alliance 'Planetary Evolution and Life'

Was there or is there life on other celestial bodies? – This and further questions is the theme of research alliance ‘Planetary Evolution and Life’ led by the institute of planetary research of the Deutschen Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR) This Alliance has been  chosen by the senate of the Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren e.V. (HGF) and funded for the next five years. The Alliance links together some non-university research institutes with some German and international universities. Together the alliance should highlight the interaction of life and planetary evolution. The chosen approach is more radical and comprehensive than previous studies, because the whole planet from its envelope (atmosphere and magnetosphere) to the interior is taken into account. Furthermore, Earth-like planets like Mars and Venus, some planetary moons, like Titan and Europa and planets outside our Solar System will be considered.

The Alliance will investigate  the subject ‘Planetary Evolution and Life’ bringing together results from some research fields. The following six main topics are the scientific basis on which the system rests:

1. Biosphere-Atmosphere-Surface Interactions and Evolution
2. Interior-Atmosphere Interation, Magnetic Field, and Planetary Evolution
3. Impacts and Planetary Evolution
4. Geological Context of Life
5.  Physics and Biology and Interfacial Water
6. Tools and Strategies for Exploration Missions for Planetary Habitability             


The aim is therefore to study the potential for the origin and development of life of a planetary body: Which conditions should exist, does the development of life influence the geological background and vice-versa? We will investigate for example with geophysical models, how in the iron core of a planet – like the Earth – by a dynamo effect a planetary magnetic field is created , which protect life from cosmic rays. Or examine why plate tectonics exists on the Earth but not on Venus, although both planets have nearly the same size. Plate tectonics leads to an intensive change of substances between the upper Earth mantle, crust, atmosphere and ocean and has a great influence in many ways on the evolution of life. The investigations of physical and chemical processes occurring by impacts of asteroids and comets with great velocities on planets should be an input parameter if this constitutes a major cource of terrestrial water. We also investigate the role of such impacts on the creation of planetary atmospheres and the synthesis of organic molecules. In this context we will also search for indications as to whether life was brought to Earth by asteroids and comets. From the point of comparable planetology the understanding of the role of carbon dioxide in view of the development of planetary atmospheres and their role in the origin and development of life is of great importance. Furthermore, data from space craft missions will be used in the Alliance to investigate the habitability of planetary and lunar surfaces. Also experiments in the laboratory should be performed to investigate the physical characteristics of water layers which are only a few molecules thick on martian rock probes, that could be relevant for the existence of primitive organisms. With these studies progress in the search for indications of formerly and also presently existing life in the Solar System should is our goal.

The education of the PhD students and Post-Docs in the context of this Alliance is supported by Alliance weeks, workshops and a graduate training programme which is specifically-tailored to the research topic.


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