From the Director
Dear Friends of Hawaii Astronomy,
One of the most exciting new research topics of modern astronomy is astrobiology, the study of life in the universe. Astrobiology brings together physical, chemical, and biological sciences to investigate some of the most fundamental questions. How does life emerge? How do habitable worlds form and evolve? Does life exist beyond Earth?
Using the unique capabilities of the telescopes on Mauna Kea and Haleakala, IfA researchers have started to work intensively on these questions. Now this research effort has received very prestigious recognition. In a fierce nationwide competition, NASA has selected a team of UH researchers, led by IfA astronomer Karen Meech, as an Astrobiology Institute Lead Team. This selection comes with a five-year $5 million award.
This is a fundamental step forward for astrobiological research at the IfA and UH Manoa. It also demonstrates two facts. First, research at our institute and our university is competitive at the highest national and international levels. Second, there is a fruitful climate of interdisciplinary collaboration.
Besides faculty from the IfA, the successful UH astrobiology team includes scientists from the Departments of Chemistry, and Information and Computer Sciences, and from several components of the School of Ocean & Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).
The joint research will focus on water as the habitat of life. IfA astronomers will use the telescopes on Mauna Kea and Haleakala to investigate the distribution of water in interstellar gas clouds and comets, and in the protoplanetary disks around young stars. UH chemists will carry out new laboratory experiments to determine how water molecules can form in the interstellar environment, and SOEST researchers will investigate the role played by water in forming habitats for life in our solar system and on planets around other stars.
There will also be Earth-based studies to understand the importance of water in forming rocks and minerals. Finally, team members will explore aquatic life in extreme environments in and around the Hawaiian islands, which may lead to the development of new instruments that may one day be used to search for life elsewhere in the solar system.
It has long been my conviction that astronomy makes fundamental contributions to a wide spectrum of sciences, and thus if integrated well into the academic life of a campus, can become a source of continual intellectual stimulation. The UH NASA Astrobiology Lead Team is a beautiful example of this.