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Christine McGourty reports for BBC News
"Are we alone in the Universe?"
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Dr Don Cowan
Prospects for life good on Mars and Europa
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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 15:48 GMT
Hunting for ET

Mars Extra-terrestrial extremophiles could be on Mars

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

British scientists interested in searching for life in space are getting together to launch the UK Astrobiology Forum.

It will allow British astronomers, biologists, geologists and engineers to pool their knowledge, and think up better ways of detecting extra-terrestrials.

The panel is not exactly a new initiative but it should help focus research effort and may help to attract new funding.

Black smoker: Hot vents on the ocean floor support life
Scientists from all disciplines now realise that life on our planet is far more widespread and adaptable than they once thought possible. Living organisms have been discovered in what were believed to be inhospitable locations such as the frozen wastes of Antarctica, the ocean floor and the "deep biosphere" of rocks many kilometres below the Earth's surface.

Scientists call these creatures "extremophiles" because of their ability to withstand enormous pressures, severe temperatures and highly toxic environments.

Their existence on Earth has boosted the belief that extra-terrestrial extremophiles could also survive elsewhere in the Universe - even in our own Solar System.

Lack of funding

Nasa has already set up its groundbreaking online Astrobiology Institute to pursue this line of thinking - and in the UK, a network of researchers has also been doing broadly similar work.

For many years, like-minded scientists, and other enthusiasts, have been members of what has been called the UK Exobiology Forum. However, these scientists, although they have been able to conduct their individual lines of research, have not had the money for inter-disciplinary studies that is available in the US.

Europa Jupiter's moon Europa may harbour life below its ice-encrusted surface
So does Monday's announcement of the UK Astrobiology Forum mean there is now more money from the government to help answer one of life's greatest questions: are we alone? The answer is no.

The launch of panel, backed by the British National Space Centre (BNSC), does not actually include any new funding for the quest.

The BNSC, regarded by many international space agencies and bodies as not having its finger on the pulse of space exploration and the public's fascination in it, is backing what is essentially just a name change.

Harsh environments

Unveiling a new report on the under-funded status of astrobiology-related studies in the UK, the chair of the astrobiology reporting panel, Dr Don Cowan of University College London, says: "This is a really exciting time in Astrobiology. In our investigations we found many British scientists who were Astrobiologists without knowing it.

"Biologists were studying how life survives in the harsh environment of Antarctica; astronomers were developing new missions to find new planets; chemists were developing new techniques to identify biochemical markers; geologists were studying the way life transforms the properties of our planet.

Fossil Scientists need to be convinced that microfossil bacteria have been detected in Martian meteorites
"Brought together, they make a powerful force in astrobiology which will enable us to find out still more about where we come from and what other life might exist or have existed in the Universe.

"I firmly believe we have the potential to find another evolutionary experiment like the one on Earth."

Many scientists believe that there is life out there, but as yet they have no proof. Controversy rages over whether a rock from Mars bears evidence of fossilised micro-organisms. It is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of scientists do not believe the case has been made, despite what they would like to believe in their hearts.

The new name for the old exobiology forum is testimony to the two things that scientists cannot do without these days: money and publicity - which often go hand in hand.

The scientists want the publicity in the hope it will get them some money.

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See also:
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Bacteria found in Antarctic ice core
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