Special thanks to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Astrobiology Research and Education (RARE) Center graduate students Sebastian Barkett, Justin Park, Emeline Vidal, Sam Pryor, Meri Herrero, and Wan-Jing Song! They recently visited Mr. Bacon’s Maple Hill Astrobiology Class and it was a great opportunity for our students to work with students further down their educational path who are also actively involved in scientific research.

The RARE Center brings together researchers from across RPI, along with national and international colleagues and partners, who are broadly interested in the field of Astrobiology. RARE Center research topics include the origin and composition of organic compounds in space; the emergence of life on Earth; the extent of life in Earth’s extreme ecosystems; and the potential for life elsewhere in the solar systems.

Justin and Sebastian reviewed methods for detecting exoplanets, which are planets that orbit other stars that researchers have identified in the hopes of locating a planet with conditions to sustain life. During this activity, Mr. Bacon’s class analyzed exoplanet light curves collected by the Kepler Space Telescope to estimate the temperature of the planet, its orbital period and its size.

Justin also discussed the research with extremophiles, which are organisms able to survive in conditions beyond the range of most other species. Justin and Emeline are conducting experiments using a microbe that can survive in the high temperature, high salinity environment that may exist beneath the icy surface of one of the moons orbiting Saturn and a moon orbiting Jupiter.

Sam, Meri and Wan-Jing spoke with the class about the development of life on Earth and how life might be recognized on celestial bodies beyond Earth: Meri guided the class through a discussion on how Astrobiologists define life; Wan-Jing presented information about the conditions on early Earth and the scientific efforts to understand how those conditions allowed for development; and Sam discussed the concept of a biosignature, which is a clue that a planet’s atmosphere has been influenced by life and then completed a lab activity with the students to illustrate this concept.