What is astrobiology and how does one enter the field?

Astrobiology is a rapidly growing area of space science. It is characterized by interdisciplinarity, bringing together perspectives from various scientific fields. It also addresses one of the most interesting questions we have as humans about the cosmos: Are we alone? To learn about astrobiology, we spoke to Mitch Schulte, a Program Scientist with the Mars Exploration Program in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He explained the implications of the upcoming Mars 2020 mission. He also shared his experience of becoming an astrobiologist. 

Of the upcoming plans to search for indications of life on Mars, which are you most excited about?

The Mars 2020 scientific payload was designed to interrogate the surface materials on Mars at a scale that we’ve never been able to before, which is really exciting. We will be able to look at chemistry, textures, and presence of organic material at the submillimeter scale. Because microorganisms are, well, microscopic, being able to investigate on their level is really very exciting. Mars 2020 is also the first step in bringing well documented, scientifically selected samples back from Mars for the very first time. This will ultimately allow us to examine Martian rocks with very sophisticated instruments on Earth. This will be a major accomplishment. It will eventually help us understand Mars and the potential for life there in ways we simply cannot through robotic missions.

How have changes in the field of astrobiology affected missions that search for biosignatures?

Astrobiology has always been a field that includes expertise from a variety of disciplines… it was designed that way. But of course, as we learn more about life’s capabilities and adaptations, it pushes the field in different directions. Development of different technologies for doing science also matters. Being able to investigate life’s signatures at the scale at which microorganisms exist really helps. Miniaturizing instruments goes a long way to being able to send missions that inform us about the potential for life beyond Earth. 

How did you enter your profession, and what are some tips you have for aspiring astrobiologists? 

My undergraduate degree in college was in geology (Earth and planetary science), which I like to think is akin to astrobiology, in that you have to learn a number of different fields to do it properly. In order to take more advanced geology classes, you have to first learn math, physics, chemistry, and biology. So, it was natural for me to think it was no big deal to add astronomy or any other discipline to contribute to astrobiology. When I was in graduate school, my research was on understanding the potential for generating organic material during water-rock interactions, and the implications for how life emerged on Earth. This is one of the underpinnings of astrobiology! My advice for people who want to go into astrobiology is one, do not be afraid to “have” to learn something new, and two, do not think you know everything. It is ok, and highly encouraged, to collaborate to further the field. Realize that there are things that you do not know, respect other scientific fields of study, and try to learn as much as you can about those so that you understand what each piece can contribute to the whole.