The origin of the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) goes back to the proposal presented to NASA by a group of Spanish and American scientists led by Juan Pérez-Mercader to join the recently created (1998) NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).
After a thorough analysis and evaluation of the proposal and an exchange of letters at government level, CAB was integrated into the NAI in April 2000, thus becoming the first Associate Member of the NAI outside the United States.
CAB was created as a joint centre between the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), and with the support of the Autonomous Community of Madrid (CAM). The former INTA president and Secretary of State for Defence, Pedro Morenés, and the president of CSIC, César Nombela, signed on 19 November 1999 the constitution agreement on the basis of the 1991 cooperation agreement between the two institutions, with Professor Emilio Varela as INTA’s Director General. Its initial objective was to establish a truly transdisciplinary research environment for the development of the new science of Astrobiology, with a new and specific contribution of a common methodology based on complexity theories and the application of the scientific method to Life.
CAB’s scientific activities began at the end of 1999, on a temporary site provided by INTA. A new building designed, constructed and equipped for the purpose was inaugurated in January 2003, and a 20 percent extension was added in December 2007.
Astrobiology challenges science and the scientific community to develop and apply new methods and approaches. The research at CAB is focused on specific questions related to the systematization of the chain of events that took place between the Big Bang and the origin, evolution and distribution of life, including the self-organization of the interstellar gas into complex molecules. We are interested in understanding key phenomena that might affect life’s origin and evolution from the galactic environments, stars and planet formation and evolution, and the complexity of the chemistry in the interstellar space and mature prebiotic chemistry in planetary environments. Among CAB’s most relevant lines of research are: planetary scenarios that can create and evolve life as we know it; the versatility and plasticity of hypothetical biochemistry and metabolisms in different planetary environments; and the heart of astrobiology via the investigation of the possibility of life on other worlds.
How to apply fundamental scientific principles to answer the question(s) of astrobiology is the most important challenge for CAB. The unique transdisciplinary setting at CAB creates the appropriate atmosphere to allow engineers to interact with experimental, theoretical and observational scientists from various fields: astronomy and astrophysics, geology, biogeochemistry, microbiology, genetics, remote sensing, microbial ecology, computer science, physics, robotics and communications engineering.
To address these fundamental questions, research at CAB is focused on the following Areas:
The main CAB building and facilities are located within the INTA campus in Torrejón de Ardoz, and a second section in the ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), both close to Madrid. INTA, the reference Spanish institution in aerospace technology, with its nearly 80 years of existence, offers CAB a unique environment where synergies emerge easily. Similarly, the close contact with ESA’s Astronomy Center makes the involvement of our researchers in ESA’s missions a natural and fluent process.
Currently, CAB has more than150 working people that include 55 civil servants, 75 contract employees, and 25 PhD students. We are functionally organized into four departments: Astrophysics, Molecular Evolution, Planetology and Habitability, and Advanced Instrumentation. Several laboratories are equipped with facilities and instrumentation for multiple techniques, such as: biochemistry, molecular ecology, DNA sequencing, microbiology, geology, geomineralogy, geochemistry, organic chemistry, stable isotope analysis, nano-dispensing and microarray capabilities, facilities for meteoritic impact simulation, high-vacuum simulation chambers, high-pressure chambers, a Mars wind tunnel and an environmental chamber, and a cryostat for IR detector development for astronomical applications. The highly multidisciplinary team (astrophysicists, planetologists, geologists, geochemists, chemists, geomicrobiologists, molecular microbiologists, engineers and system engineers), together with the diversity of facilities and techniques available, make CAB a unique research center where multidisciplinarity turns into true transdisciplinarity to tackle astrobiological questions.
The hard work and breadth of the successful projects of the past 20 years at CAB have made it possible for us to be actively engaged in the main international space projects and missions. Our diverse portfolio of accomplishments has been acknowledged by the Spanish Ministry of Science via a “María de Maeztu” Scientific Excellence award that funded the project “Assessing the feasibility of life as a universal phenomenon through planetary exploration.” This project is making it possible for us to reinforce and strengthen interactions between current research directions at CAB and, at the same time, promote the growth of new areas of research that will develop into new transdisciplinary and impactful projects.
The coming decade is full of new challenges and opportunities for the Centro de Astrobiología. CAB scientists will have an unprecedented opportunity to follow Mars atmosphere simultaneously from three separate environmental stations that were built and are/will be operated under their leadership (REMS, TWINS and MEDA). CAB scientists and engineers will also contribute to operation of the RLS (Raman Laser Spectrometer) that will fly on ESA’s ExoMars mission and deliver the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars after it launches in 2022.
The advent of new and more sophisticated space instrumentation, either in space telescopes or ground-based ones, will open new avenues for space research that CAB scientists are pursuing. Particularly relevant will be the ESA’s PLATOmission that will search and characterize terrestrial-like planets and their atmospheres.
Understanding the potentially habitable environments of the thousands of planets to be discovered, along with deciphering their remotely detected biomarkers, requires more analog research here on Earth in terms of the improving our ability to understand how life can live and interact with its environments on the surface and in deep subsurface. CAB has the means, the facilities, the scientists, and a nice building to tackle and contribute to the main challenges of Astrobiology in the near feature.
You can see more at: https://www.liebertpub.com/toc/ast/20/9