As part of Pelican’s National Science Week coverage, we were lucky enough to snag an interview with esteemed scientist Professor Martin Van Kranendonk. Martin is appearing as an expert in astrobiology and geology at Life on Mars on the 15th August at the Perth Exhibition and Convention Centre. Currently, Martin is the Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology and the Big Questions Institute at UNSW. In particular, he studies the geology of the Pilbara region to further understand how life originated here on Earth, to aid in the search for life on Mars. Here’s what he had to say about his research and career.
What is astrobiology and what research do you do?
The Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA) is the only centre of its kind in Australia. Astrobiology is a cross-disciplinary science that investigates the record of ancient life on Earth in order to investigate the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe. As such, it involves studies of geology, chemistry, biology and physics – indeed, much of the natural sciences.
The main focus of the ACA is to conduct research on the oldest life on Earth, preserved in the Pilbara region of north-west Australia. This is hosted in rocks that are the same age as much of the crust on Mars when it had a warm and wet environment (and hence the possibility of hosting life). One of only two astrobiology centres in the world that is formally affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute, research conducted by the ACA has been used for decades by NASA, the European Space Agency and academic institutions worldwide, as a guide to understanding where to search for life on Mars. One of our major contributions to this endeavour (in addition to scientific publications) is leading annual field trips to the Pilbara for experts across the full range of scientific disciplines in astrobiology. For example, in August this year we will take the lead instrument scientists of NASA’s Mars2020 and ESA’s ExoMars rovers, in addition to all the lead scientists of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Over the previous decade, we have had essentially all the major scientists from around the word attend our field trips, and many have engaged in collaborative research with us.
In addition to the geological and geobiological studies, ACA researchers are engaged in exoplanet discovery, prebiotic chemistry and protein synthesis, and microbiological analysis of stromatolites to understand their metabolic interactions and the evolution of prokaryotic life on Earth. A growing area of research is the origin of life, and particularly the specifics of life arising in hot springs on land rather than in the deep oceans. Indeed, we are at the forefront of a paradigm shift regarding this, and we are integrated with groups in New Zealand, the USA and Japan in developing a model for life on land, based on our understanding of a deep-time Pilbara analogue site. This research is attracting global attention and will form the focus of future ACA studies over the coming decade. Finally, our links and knowledge on the origin of life and Mars has led to a meeting with the Japanese Space Agency in December this year, to develop a Mars sample return mission of hot spring materials, discovered there by a previous NASA rover mission (Spirit).
What inspired you to study geology and astrobiology?
I grew up with parents that brought me outdoors on hiking and camping trips. I fell in love with bird watching and felt more at home in the woods than in the cities. So when I started university, I enrolled in a general science degree and fell into geology by a series of circumstances. I got a job after first-year, collecting soil samples through the mountains of British Columbia, Canada for four months, camping in the woods with a team of grown men when I was eighteen! I loved it and never looked back. Astrobiology came into my life much later. I ended up moving to Australia to pursue what had become a passion of mine after completing a fourth-year project on the Pilbara from far-away Toronto, Canada where I did my undergraduate degree. I wanted to camp under the stars on the Shaw River and see the 3.5 billion-year-old greenstones of the Warrawoona Group ‘in the flesh’. I’ve been lucky enough to do that over the past twenty-five years of my career. I ended up getting a post-doctorate in mapping the geotectonic evolution of the Pilbara and from there I joined the Geological Survey of Western Australia, when they started a Pilbara mapping project that lasted for ten years. My first mapping area for them was the area of the oldest known life on Earth, and I entered into astrobiology by mapping the context of those rocks and becoming an expert on the contextual setting and its habitats.
How has the field of astrobiology advanced since its inception? Has there been a major defining breakthrough or paradigm shift?
When astrobiology first started, none of the long-siloed disciplines knew how to talk to one another – geologists to biologists, astrophysicists to chemists. It was still so technical and pigeon-holed. Now, you can go to astrobiological conferences and get something out of every talk, because we have learned that to work together, we had to develop a language that was inclusive. Now you have teams of experts across all fields of the natural sciences working together and making major advances. Major breakthroughs have to include: the discovery of so many exoplanets; a deep understanding of geobiology and the many varied ways that microbes can make a living; a much more thorough understanding of the formation of the solar system and its planets, including more detailed knowledge of the history and conditions on Mars (our nearest neighbour and the one planet most likely to hold signs of a second genesis); and our understanding of some of the key conditions required for the origin of life.
Why is the Pilbara a useful analogue for Mars when discussing the evolution of early life?
The Pilbara is very ancient, and the same age as much of the crust on Mars, when that planet is known to have had a warm and wet atmosphere with running rivers, lakes and even small oceans. These ingredients were also present on Earth, so the Pilbara is a key site for studying what conditions might have been like on Mars so very long ago, and also for understanding what habitats were colonised on Earth, and thus guide us to places to search for signs of past life on Mars.
In your opinion, how close are we to discovering extra-terrestrial life? What do you think it will look like?
There are five missions launching to Mars in 2020, two to directly look for signs of past life in ancient rocks. Whether there is life, we have no way of knowing until we look more closely with these missions and return samples back to earth for close inspection and analysis. A key breakthrough from past mission’s is that we now know that Mars was habitable in the deep past, and that is exciting.
In your opinion, what is the most interesting part of your research?
Discovering new pieces of the jigsaw of life. I am extremely privileged to have access to, and be funded for, research on the oldest life on our planet. Our discoveries are impacting the search for extra-terrestrial life, for understanding evolution, and for a deeper insight on what the setting for the origin of life might have been. That and having wonderful students who enrich my knowledge and work experience, and working with smart, passionate colleagues in remote parts of the world. I am pretty lucky!
Do you have any advice for budding astrobiologists out there?
Go for it. Follow your dreams. Pursue your interests. Get involved. Go on trips, broaden your horizons, contribute to society. Show your enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid. Read, read, read (the good stuff, not Wikipedia or Facebook). Contact scientists you admire – they always want to hear from enthusiastic new, fresh young minds!
“Go for it. Follow your dreams. Pursue your interests. Get involved. Go on trips, broaden your horizons, contribute to society. Show your enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid.”
Hungry for more information on this fascinating topic? Life on Mars is on at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre on the 15th August 2019, and tickets are available here.
Interview by Lachlan MacRae