Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Led by Dr. Petra Rettberg
Astrobiology is a natural sciences research area concerned with the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology is interdisciplinary and encompasses amongst other disciplines biology, chemistry, physics, geosciences, planetary sciences and astronomy. The aim of this research is to learn more about the origin and evolution of life on Earth, about the formation of planetary systems, about organic compounds in space and to find out, if life exists or might exist elsewhere. Our neighbor planet Mars, but also the icy moons in the outer solar system, here in particular Europa and Enceladus, are of astrobiological interest. These solar system bodies are the target of ongoing and future international space missions with substantial contributions from DLR.
The main astrobiological question is whether the origin of life is an inevitable process, i.e. if the laws of biology are universal such as the laws of chemistry and physics, or if the origin of life on Earth was a unique event. The most important questions in astrobiology are; (i) How can we define habitability? (ii) Is there life on other planets and moons in our solar system and beyond? (iii) Where and how should we search for sign of past or present life?
The Research Group ‚Astrobiology‘ in the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne (led by Petra Rettberg) is working on this subject since the Apollo era with a main focus on the biological aspects of astrobiology. The cellular and molecular reponses to extreme environmental parameters as they occur on other planets and moons in our solar system are studied in microorganisms. Examples for parameters relevant for habitability are ionising and non-ionising radiation, high and low temperatures, low pressure, vacuum, low water activity, oxidising compounds, high salt concentrations, different gravity levels. In addition, the microbiome of manned habitats like the International Space Station (ISS) and the microbiome of plants grown in a confined habitat in Antarctica (EDEN ISS - Ground Demonstration of Plant Cultivation Technologies for Safe Food Production in Space) are under investigation. One important component are activities in the area of planetary protection, here the determination of the bioburden and biodiversity of spacecraft and spacecraft assembly cleanrooms as well as contributions to international planetary protection rules and standards (PANEL ON PLANETARY PROTECTION (PPP)).
The experimental work of the research group is performed in microbiological labs, in planerary and space simulation facilities, by participation in field campaigns, in form of space experiments, e.g. on the ISS, and by contributions to international space missions, e.g. ExoMars2020. These activities are complemented by collaboration in the development of relevant technologies, e.g. plasma-decontamination of space hardware or optimisation of antimicrobial surfaces.
See also: "running and planned space experiments" of the Department of Radiation Biology