Astrobiology and Society in Europe
There is only, as we know it, one planet with life—our own Earth. However, current research in astrobiology searches for a second sample of a living world. Astrobiology, which concerns the origin, evolution, and future of life here on Earth and beyond, has become a rapidly expanding research field during the last two decades. European researchers are playing a leading role. Thousands of planets in other solar systems have been discovered. Knowledge about life’s evolutionary origin, and its requirements and environmental conditions have expanded considerably. It is not unlikely that one day—some say that this could happen within the next few decades—we will discover evidence of the existence of another living planet. Living or fossilized microbes could be found within our Solar System, or we could find signs of biological processes on planets in other solar systems. But even if this never happens, astrobiological research will still give us a new understanding of how life emerged on our planet, how it evolved, and what environmental conditions it needs in order to survive. In all, current and future research in astrobiology will change the view of how humans look at themselves, what it means to be a human, to be alive, to survive, where we come from, and where we are heading (Fig. 2.1). Astrobiology has clear existential implications, but beyond these, it also has concrete cultural, ethical, societal, educational, political, economic, and legal consequences. How will the general public react if we discover life on another planet? What pedagogic role can astrobiology play in elementary and higher education? To what extent should we utilise space for commercial and industrial purposes? How should this be politically managed and how should it be legally regulated? This White Paper on the societal implications of astrobiology research in Europe, which is a joint interdisciplinary effort of Working Group 5 within the COST Action TD1308 “Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth and in the Universe”, aims to gather together these challenges and implications, and in so doing lay the ground for a European Astrobiology Institute.