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New initiative puts University of Cambridge at the forefront of search for alien life



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A new research initiative, created by the University of Cambridge and spearheaded by 2019 Physics Nobel Laureate Professor Didier Queloz, is attempting to find the answers to the origins and nature of life in the universe.

Nobel Prize winner Prof Didier Queloz. Picture: University of Cambridge
Nobel Prize winner Prof Didier Queloz. Picture: University of Cambridge

The initiative aims to bring together physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and Earth scientists in a bid to find life beyond Earth as well as taking them closer to understanding life in the universe.

Building on the university’s research excellence and enhancing the multidisciplinary research conducted in various departments of the School of the Physical Sciences, the focus of the research within the new initiative will be to understand the origins and physical properties of planets throughout the universe, as well as the chemical and biological processes capable of starting and sustaining life.

Prof Queloz, who will direct the initiative, said: “By bringing together chemists, geologists, biologists, and astrophysicists to work creatively together toward a common goal, the initiative will ensure we truly exploit the full potential of this exciting new field of research, bringing us closer to understanding life in the universe and finding life beyond Earth.

“We don’t have a very good understanding of the origin of life but we have a pretty good understanding of the functions of life. It is a bit like having a car. You know how to drive it and know how to steer it and brake but you you don’t know how to make it and that is the situation that we are trying to fix. We are living in a fascinating moment.”

The Perseverance Mars Rover is lowered to the surface of the red planet by its “jet pack”. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Perseverance Mars Rover is lowered to the surface of the red planet by its “jet pack”. Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The recent successful landing of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover has set in motion one of the greatest international scientific endeavours of recent decades and Prof Queloz believes that within the next decade, samples returned from a four-billion-year-old lake deposit on Mars will offer a unique window on the Solar System as it was when life originated on Earth and could provide evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet.

He added: “Mars is a time stamp of the earth after about one billion years. At that time life had started on earth but we have no recall of that time. Are we going to find alien life? Who knows. Science is made of surprises and surprises can happen at any time. What I think its more likely to happen, is we are going to gradually build-up the knowledge and learn a lot about the meaning of life on earth by studying Mars. By studying the universe we are learning something.

“These recent revolutions and future perspectives offered by next-generation space missions mean that the planets are aligned for us to create a vibrant new field at the cutting edge of modern science,” said Prof Queloz, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory.

An artist's impression of a planet transiting a star. Picture: ESA/ATG medialab
An artist's impression of a planet transiting a star. Picture: ESA/ATG medialab

The School of the Physical Sciences and its various departments - Cavendish Laboratory, Chemistry, Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Earth Sciences and the Institute of Astronomy - recently committed to an initial funding package that will support the initiative as it builds the foundations of its vision and will also create the conditions for its research and educational ambitions to grow and develop.

Professor Nigel Peake, head of the School of the Physical Sciences, said: “During the last decades our understanding of the microbiology of life has made spectacular progress, but knowledge on origins of life on Earth, and more generally in the Universe, are still nascent. This is about to change.

“I am proud that Cambridge is leading the way to a radically new approach based on a convergence of recent results in astrophysics, planetology and molecular chemistry.

“With the Cambridge Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe, we will provide the infrastructure that will allow scholars from various disciplines to combine their interests to address the fundamental question of our origins in the universe. This sets the scene for a revolution to come.”


Read more

The Cambridge man helping NASA search for ancient life on Mars

Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to University of Cambridge’s Didier Queloz for first discovery of an exoplanet

The origin of life on Earth explored at MRC LMB in Cambridge using a flask and a lamp

How Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge is hunting exoplanets with SPECULOOS project

Cambridge astronomers help discover new class of planet known as an ‘ultrahot Neptune’

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