Field Exploration and Life Detection Sampling through Planetary Analogue Research (FELDSPAR)

Amanda M. Stockton, Georgia Tech, US

Tuesday, 15 June 2021, 16:00 CEST (14:00 UTC)

Exploration missions to Mars rely on orbiters to collect large-scale data, and landed missions are constrained to footprints of a rover or lander, with individual samples on the mm to cm scale. It is currently not well-constrained how habitability varies over these spatial scales. FELDSPAR seeks to conduct field studies analogous to Mars sample return from landing site selection, in-field sample selection, remote or stand-off analysis, in situ analysis, and home laboratory (sample return) analysis [1]. This abstract represents an overview of the data collected during the 2017 field season and a comparison to data from prior field seasons in 2013 [1, 2], 2015, and 2016. Volcanic regions, particularly in Iceland, are relevant Martian analogues [1-2]. The four field sites include two recent lava fields at Fimmvörðuháls and Holuhraun, a recently deglaciated plain (Mælifellssandur), and an alluvial plain (Dyngjusandur). Samples in nested triangular grids every order of magnitude from the 10 cm scale to the 1 km scale were collected at each site. In-field analyses included overhead imagery at 1 m to 200 m elevation, in-field reflectance spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence. ATP content was analyzed in a field lab, and Raman spectroscopy and qPCR for fungal, bacterial, and archaeal DNA are ongoing in the home lab(s). Spatial variation in ATP content at the 10 cm scale averaged out at larger scales, while the other analyses revealed limited variability. A follow-on expedition in summer 2018 searched to elucidate which geochemical and geochemical parameters dictate habitability. For more information, follow us on Facebook @FELDSPAResearch

The lecture will be streamed at: - European Astrobiology Institute


Nigel J. Mason, University of Kent, UK

Tuesday, 4 May 2021, 16:00 CEST (15:00 UTC)

Astrobiology has two principal goals: 1) to learn how life began and evolved on Earth, and 2) to establish whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. Understanding the cosmic evolution of molecules that carry the elements C, H, O, P,  S and N is central to this quest. Today we know that there is a rich and complex chemistry pervading the Interstellar medium and that this is retained amidst star and planet formation being observed in cometary bodies. However, the mechanisms by which such molecules are synthesized and the complexity that can be achieved remains subject of considerable uncertainty and provides a challenge to both the laboratory and modelling communities. In this talk I will review what we know, what we need to know and why we have not made the progress we expected in the last decade. I will then discuss some ideas of how we can overcome current challenges and achieve these two goals

See the trailer at:

The lecture will be streamed at:


Bertram Bitsch, MPI for Astronomy, DE

Tuesday, 18 May 2021, 16:00 CEST (14:00 UTC)

Exoplanet observations have revealed a wealth of data that has to be explained via planet formation simulations. Past simulations focused mainly on the mass-orbital distance distribution of exoplanets. However, recent detailed observations have allowed to constrain planetary masses and radii to such detail, that the bulk composition can be derived, giving new constraints to planet formation models. Of particular interest is the water content of close-in super-Earths and sub-Neptunes, because the water content is an important tracer of the formation history of planets as well as of great importance for the search of life on other planets. In this talk, I will outline the main ingredients of planet formation simulations, focusing on the core accretion scenario, with a particular focus on the composition of planets. In particular I will highlight the importance of water, not only for the composition of planets, but also for the formation pathway (growth and migration) of the planets themselves.

The lecture will be streamed at:

See the trailer at:


Emmanuelle Javaux, University of LIége, Belgium

Tuesday, 20 April 2021, 16:00 CEST (14:00 UTC)

Deciphering the early record and evolution of life is crucial to characterize plausible and reliable biosignatures of microbial life and understand the evolution of the Earth biosphere. We can then address questions regarding the conditions for life to appear and develop on a planetary body (habitability), or the probability for an extraterrestrial biosphere to develop complex metabolism or complex life. This research is also critical to develop life detection strategies, instruments and missions applicable to other planets of the solar system such as the ongoing and future Martian missions, and to atmospheres of rocky exoplanets, and to samples returned to Earth, as space agencies have recently come to appreciate.

Considerable debates still exist regarding the age and origins of the three domains of life (Archaea, Bacteria, Eucarya), as well as the evolution of cellular life before LUCA. Possible isotopic, biosedimentary, molecular and morphological traces of life suggest the presence of microbial communities in diverse environments. However, these traces may in some cases also be produced by abiotic processes or later contamination, leaving a controversy surrounding the earliest record of life on Earth. Before a microstructure can be accepted as a microfossil, a series of approaches need to be employed to prove its endogenicity, syngenicity, and biological origin, as well as to falsify an abiotic explanation for the observed morphologies or chemistries. These micro- to nano-scale analyses complement the macro-scale characterisation of the geological context, as the environmental conditions will determine the plausibility of ancient habitats and the conditions of fossilisation.  Experimental taphonomy also helps understanding the processes of decay and preservation of biosignatures during fossilization. Interpreting the identity and paleobiology of unambiguous traces may also be challenging. However, regardless of taxonomy, the paleobiological record can provide direct evidence for extinct clades and/or for the minimum age of evolution of biological innovations. Reassessing the evidence of early life is challenging but essential and timely for the quest of life’s first traces and evolution, both on Earth and beyond.

See the trailer at:


Anna Losiak, University of Exeter, UK

Tuesday, 23 March 2021, 16:00 CET (15:00 UTC)

Impact craters form when rocky objects, such as asteroids or moons, collide with one another, especially when these objects are moving at exceptionally high speeds. This is a critically important process in the Solar System, because this process rapidly releases enormous amounts of energy, similar to the explosion of a bomb. This process can lead to many geological features, and on Earth, it has resulted in major changes to the environment. Ironically, impacts both endanger life, but also have created the environments necessary for the development of life, including the delivery of water to the planet. After impact craters form, they form warm enclaves where water is heated in hydrothermal systems, and generate niches for life, possibly including the origin of life itself. Without impact craters, we would not be here.

See the lecture here (on Youtube).


David Dunér, Lund University, Sweden

Tuesday, 23 February 2021, 16:00 CET (15:00 UTC)

This seminar will deal with 4 iomportant questions in the search for signs of life in outer space:


  • How we form concepts of life in astrobiology, how we define and categorize things, and the relation between our concepts and our knowledge of the world:
  • How we see similarities between things, and with inductive, analogical reasoning go from what we know to what we do not know, from the only example of life here on Earth, to possible extraterrestrial
  • How we interpret what our senses convey in our search for biosignatures
  • How we, as interpreters, establish connections between things, between the expression (the biosignature) and the content (the living organism)

 In all, it is about how we get access to the world, and how we interpret and understand it, for achieving a well-grounded knowledge about the living Universe.



The lecture can be seen at at:


Catherine Walsh, University of Leeds, UK

Tuesday, 9 February 2021, 16:00 CET (15:00 UTC)

Protoplanetary disks around young stars are the factories of planetary systems. These structures contain all the material - dust, gas, and ice - that will build planets and other bodies such as comets. Hence, understanding the physics and chemistry of disks provides much needed insight into the conditions under which planets form, and determining their molecular content reveals the raw ingredients of planetary atmospheres.

In this talk, I will show how state-of-the-art observations at (sub)mm wavelengths with ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array have revealed the composition of the planet building zone of protoplanetary disks. I will present early results from the first ALMA Large Program dedicated to the observation of molecular line emission from protoplanetary disks around nearby young stars at high angular resolution (0.1" - 0.3"), titled "Molecules with ALMA on Planet-Forming Scales" or MAPS. I will present images that reveal intriguing sub-structure in emergent line emission from key organic molecules. I will also discuss how observations in the gas-phase of large organic molecules provide insight into the composition of the icy-comet building reservoir around other stars.  Finally I will discuss how early results from MAPS have provided the most detailed studies to date of the chemistry of planet formation.

The lecture is available at at: EAI-Seminars Series: The Organic Inventory of Planet Formation - YouTube


Thomas Henning, Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany

Tuesday, 26 January 2021, 16:00 CET (15:00 UTC)

Modern life is characterized by a complex DNA/protein machinery encapsulated in cellular systems. The talk will discuss how feedstock molecules such as hydrogen cyanide and formaldehyde can be produced
under early Earth conditions or in planet-forming environments. These molecules may then lead to RNA structures, amino acids and lipid


The lecture is available at Youtube:


Heather Graham, Agnostic Biosignatures Lab, USA

Tuesday, 12 January 2021, 16:00 CET (15:00 UTC)

Current strategies for biosignature detection rely mainly on identification of well-established and widely accepted features and signatures associated with the biologic processes of life on Earth, such as particular classes of molecules and isotopic signatures, enantiomeric excesses, and patterns within the molecular weights of fatty acids or other lipids. As we begin to explore icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn and other destinations far beyond Earth, methods that identify unknowable, unfamiliar features and chemistries that may represent processes of life as-yet unrecognized become increasingly important.  Life detection without presumption of terran characteristics presents a formidable challenge to any astrobiology strategy. How do we contend with the truly alien? “Agnostic” approaches to biosignature and life detection are designed to target generic characteristics of life that distinguish it from abiotic chemistry. These methods require us to utilize existing instrumentation in more general ways, pursue new leads, and synthesize data with probabilistic approaches, since agnostic methods may trade definitiveness for inclusivity. This talk will outline some of the approaches under investigation in the Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures, discuss potential paths towards “agnostification”, and address some of the methodological problems and knowledge gaps posed by the problem of considering novel indications of life.

The lecture is available at our YouTube channel:


Ana Catalina Plesa, German Aerospace Centre

Tuesday, 1 December 2020, 16:00 CET (15:00 UTC)

The subsurface environments of Mars and Europa are important targets for planetary exploration due to their high astrobiological potential. On Mars, observations from orbiting spacecrafts and in-situ measurements by rovers and landers show evidence that liquid water was present at the surface and in the subsurface of Mars. The presence of water throughout the early evolution and in transient episodes during later times has important implications for the habitability of the planet. On Jupiter’s moon Europa, subsurface brine pockets or mushy regions may be present. If stable over geological time scales, they may provide niches for the ice shell habitability. Such environments, where liquid water may exist in the subsurface of Mars and Europa, may be located at kilometers depth. Measurements from planetary missions, however, mostly sample the surface and the very shallow subsurface and often provide only indirect constraints for the deep subsurface. Albeit these difficulties, physical processes that are relevant for the interior of planets and for the ice shells of moons in the Outer Solar System can be investigated  using numerical simulations. In this presentation, I will focus on the dynamics of Mars’ deep interior and of Europa’s ice shell to provide implications for their subsurface, where liquid water may be stable today. Combined with laboratory measurements and data from space missions, thermo-chemical evolution models can help to characterize the subsurface of Mars and Europa and to identify regions of interest for future planetary exploration.  The lecture is available at Youtube: