The Search for Extraterrestrial Life
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and existence of life in the universe. The search for life beyond Earth requires a wide-ranging understanding of not only the nature of the types of environments that may support life and the different planetary systems, but also stellar interactions and processes. As such, astrobiology is a multi-disciplinary field that draws upon the knowledge of many different scientific areas, such as biology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, sociology, atmospheric science, and aeronautical engineering. It is also not unusual to find courses on theology and philosophy in an astrobiology curriculum as the search for life touches upon the very meaning of our existence. The principal areas of astrobiological research are (i) understanding the conditions under which life can arise, (ii) looking for habitable worlds, and (iii) searching for evidence of life.
So how does this tie into the ocean?
One way is through the recent discovery that the deep-sea hydrothermal vents found on the ocean floor provide a unique habitat where only certain kinds of organisms can survive and its parallels with the conditions found in deep space. Astrobiologists have developed exploration techniques to study life in these extreme environments to determine how organisms evolved to survive in such extreme environments. The techniques used for deep-sea exploration provide an excellent proving ground for extraterrestrial exploration.
Another way is through a newer branch of science called planetary oceanography, which involves the study of oceans on planets and moons other than Earth. Ocean scientists are applying the research experience and techniques they developed to explore the deep ocean to the search for life in oceans beyond the Earth. Accordingly, the focus on ocean worlds – planets with substantial, stable liquid on or below their surface – requires expertise in ocean science-related fields such as marine microbiology, marine biology, hydrology, and physical, geological, chemical, and biological oceanography.
- Life, Here and Beyond, Astrobiology at NASA.
- What is Astrobiology, University of Washington.
- What is Astrobiology, University of Washington.
- Astrobiology, Encyclopedia Britannica.
- New Possibilities For Life At The Bottom Of Earth’s Ocean, And Perhaps In Oceans On Other Planets, Arizona State University.
- Exploring Ocean Worlds, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
- Astrobiology and Ocean Worlds, Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Path to Becoming an Astrobiologist
From High School to Your First Job
Build a Solid Academic Foundation
Take all available STEM-related courses (physics, biology, chemistry, computer science, algebra, geometry, calculus) offered at your high school. Take all these classes at the most advanced level possible (honors, AP). This will help you build your knowledge base in scientific theory and concepts.
If not available at your high school, take physics-related (astronomy, astrophysics, mechanics, cosmology), biology-related (oceanography, biochemistry, microbiology, biophysics), mathematics-related (probability and statistics), and geology-related (geology, geochemistry) classes offered online.
Keep in Mind:
Gain lab work experience through a research internship. Learn how to write for a scientific and non-scientific audience. The ability to communicate in writing cannot be overstated. Given the international nature of scientific collaboration, become fluent in a foreign language. Be a voracious reader.
jump on your Academic career
There’s no substitute for experience.
We have compiled a database of thousands of internships, research opportunities, academic programs and specialized training programs so you can get a jump on your academic career.
Academic Training Programs
And if you need support to fulfill your dreams and ambitions, our searchable database has plenty of scholarship opportunities as well as programs designed to increase diversity in the sciences.
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Make all the right moves
Advice from those who know
Maintain an excellent GPA, especially in math and the sciences
Gain an understanding of all of astrobiology’s component areas
Obtain lab experience and become familiar with lab instrumentation
Attend professional conferences and biology and astronomy seminars
Present your research at student research colloquiums
Build experience through internships or as an undergraduate researcher
What degree is right for you?
Because of the interdisciplinary nature of astrobiology, it does not easily lend itself to undergraduate studies or entry-level positions. Therefore, you should focus on obtaining a degree in one of the constituent areas of astrobiology such as astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, or physics. You should gain familiarity with lab techniques, computer modeling, and the use of scientific instrumentation.
A master’s degree is recommended as this is where you will be able to begin to specialize your studies in astrobiology, although you will most likely be focusing on one of astrobiology’s constituent sciences. It will also open up more employment opportunities, primarily with governmental agencies, but realistically you are going to need to obtain a doctoral degree in order to work in the field. You should also have an opportunity to engage in fieldwork.
A doctoral degree and, most likely, years of post-doctoral study are required if you want to pursue a career in astrobiology. This is certainly true if you want to apply for research grants, gain university support and open up university teaching positions. Given the highly specialized nature of astrobiology, a doctoral degree is recommended if you want to obtain senior-level positions with federal government agencies, private industry, as well as with nongovernmental entities and nonprofit organizations.
10 Schools With Excellent Astrobiology Programs
Want to see the full list of colleges and universities with degree offerings or relevant courses?
Because so few universities have formal astrobiology majors, you should take courses that cover a wide variety of the disciplines that make up astrobiology. Take classes outside your discipline (philosophy, evolution) too.
Do not just consider a school’s undergraduate offerings. Even if a school does not offer dedicated astrobiology classes at the undergraduate level, you may eventually be able to take or sit in on graduate-level courses.
Within astrobiology itself, there are different leanings (planetary habitability, origin of life), so when selecting your core course of study, you should determine your “home” science and explore that area in greater depth.
Have familiarity with one or more of the following areas
Working in extreme environments
Coding and data analysis
Scientific research equipment
Typical Job Functions of an Astrobiologist
Here are some of the interesting things you could be doing.
Testing exploration methods for use in extreme conditions.
Assisting in the search for exoplanets.
Studying the geologic and atmospheric conditions needed for life.
Analyzing space-telescope images or data from satellites.
Developing computer models to predict whether a given solar system will likely contain a habitable planet.
Running computer simulations to model how organisms evolve to survive in extreme environments.
Designing experiments to detect organic molecules that could indicate life.
Examining data from planets inside and outside the solar system to determine chemical composition and environment.
There’s an Ocean of Possibilities
Searching for life on other planets and studying what that life needs to survive makes for a tremendously exciting career. As an astrobiologist, you will not only be dealing with very challenging scientific issues but also fundamental philosophical ones. And who knows, one day, you may find yourself exploring the deepest depths of the ocean, whether right here on Earth or on some distant planet.
Common employers include:
Federal Government Agencies
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- National Science Foundation
- Air Force Space Command
- National Reconnaissance Office
- National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
- Defense Space Council
- Advanced Research Projects Agency
Private Spaceflight Companies
- Virgin Galactic
- Blue Origin
- Research Institutions
Start your career search with our extensive list of employment websites.