XV International School of Astrobiology ‘Josep Comas i Solà’: Exoplanet Habitability

Sede: Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo, Santander, Palacio de la Magdalena.

Organizado por el Centro de Astrobiología (CAB) y el NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI)

The XV edition of this School has focused on the potential habitability of extrasolar planets. This is a very topical issue in astrobiology, since the increasingly frequent detection of small planets orbiting around stars relatively close to the Sun, as well as the development of new methods for characterizing exoplanets, make the Discovery of life outside the Solar System can be produced in the near future.

Four internationally renowned professors have participated: Giada Arney (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, United States), Adrian Lenardic (Rice University, United States), Don Pollacco (University of Warwick, United Kingdom) and Sean Raymond (Université de Bordeaux, France). In their classes it has been shown how the search for habitable planets outside the Solar System begins with the identification of telluric exoplanets orbiting in the zone of habitability of their star: the layer around it in which a planet type Earth and with atmosphere can keep liquid water on its surface. In addition to fulfilling this condition, there are additional features that have to do with its star, the planetary system and the planet itself. Thus, another of the fundamental aspects treated in this School has been the analysis of the set of physical processes that govern the formation, geophysics and atmospheric phenomena of the planets.

During this School, Álvaro Giménez Cañete (Director of Science of the European Space Agency, ESA, and Director of the European Center for Space Astronomy, ESAC) has explained ESA’s Space Science Program, with special emphasis on missions related to the search and characterization of extrasolar planets. Additionally, María Rosa Zapatero (Department of Astrophysics of the CAB) has given a scientific dissemination talk entitled “Extrasolar planets: in search of other lands”. This conference, open to the public, has been integrated into the UIMP’s “Knowledge and Values” cycle, and has been attended by people.

As a parallel activity within the School, An excursion to Flysch de Zumaia-Deba has been made, a place on the western coast of Gipuzkoa (integrated in the Geopark of the Basque Coast) whose rocky strata maintain the record of almost 60 million years of geological history. Among such strata, the so-called “Cretaceous-Paleogene Limit” stands out, corresponding to the extinction of the late Cretaceous (65.5 million years ago), in which a large part of the biodiversity of multicellular organisms disappeared, including dinosaurs or Ammonites Through the explanations provided by the monitors of the Algorri Interpretation Center of Zumaia, both students and professors of the School have been able to know the geological history of this scientifically relevant environment. In addition to exploring the successive strata walking along the cliffs and the beach, the whole of the geological formation has been seen thanks to a 45-minute boat trip along the coast.

During the five days that the School lasted all the students, divided into four groups and advised by the teachers, have elaborated works with which an interesting experiment was proposed: each group had to analyze the spectroscopic information obtained from the atmosphere of a fictional planet, of dimensions similar to those of the Earth, that would have been discovered in the future within the habitability zone of a star of our galaxy. Thus, relating said data with the atmospheric spectroscopic signals of known planets, and taking into account the additional information of the planetary system to which the exoplanet belongs, the students have reasoned whether or not there are conditions to host some type of life. The four works have been exposed by the students during the last day of the School, and after each exhibition (proposed as the press conference that would be given by the space agencies involved in the discovery of this extrasolar planet) an interesting discussion has been established with the other students and teachers. The final point of this XV edition of the School of Astrobiology has been the ceremony of delivery of Diplomas to the students.