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Biology Students Learn To Scan The Stars For Signs Of Life


  • You have to learn to crack eggs if you’re going to cook an omelet.
  • You have to jump in the water if you’re going to learn to swim.
  • And you have to get your hands on telescopes that can search for signs of life beyond Earth if you’re going to study extraterrestrial biology.

That’s why 14 University of Washington graduate biology students will be at Kitt Peak National Observatory this week (March 17 - 21) to learn observing techniques from University of Arizona and National Optical Astronomy Observatory astronomers.

The UW students are specializing in a new science called "astrobiology" that involves studying biological processes on the Earth and beyond. It’s a multidisciplinary science that combines research in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and planetary science.

The astronomy faculty and biology students will use Kitt Peak’s world-class telescopes to study interstellar molecules, the sun, and sun-like stars that may be capable of supporting life. Interstellar molecules are molecules of chemical compounds in the space between the stars and the "building blocks" of astrobiology.

The telescopes and faculty involved in the program are:

The Kitt Peak 12-meter (40-foot) Telescope, part of UA’s Arizona Radio Observatory, directed by Lucy Ziurys, UA professor of chemistry and astronomy. Ziurys and Steward Observatory’s Aldo Apponi will conduct the lab, "Interstellar Molecules as Probes of Star Formation and Prebiotic Chemistry."

The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. Mark Giampapa, deputy director of the National Solar Observatory, will lead sessions in solar astronomy that measure magnetic fields and spectra of the sun as analogs to sun-like stars.

The 2.3-meter (90-inch) Steward Observatory Bok Telescope. UA astronomy Professor Nick Woolf, director of LAPLACE, and Steward Observatory’s Daniel Apai and Paul Smith will conduct a lab on "Optical Spectroscopy of Young Sun-like Stars." LAPLACE is the Tucson-based Life and Planets Astrobiology Center, part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

The 2.1-meter (83-inch) Kitt Peak National Observatory Telescope. Michael Meyer, UA assistant astronomy professor, and UA astronomy graduate student Wayne Schlingman will use a near-infrared camera on the telescope for their lab sessions on "Near-Infrared Imaging of Extremely Young Star Clusters - Investigating the Formation of Sun-like Stars."

The Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO (WIYN) 0.9-meter (35-inch) Optical Telescope. Astrophysicist William Sherry and Steward Observatory’s Nick Siegler will lead a lab on the "Optical Imaging of Extremely Young Star-Clusters ­ Investigating the Formation of Sun-like Stars."

Kitt Peak Public Viewing Telescopes. Kitt Peak staff will assist the biology students in observing and photographing the night sky.

Other participants in the exchange include:

- Jonathan Lunine of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
- Woody Sullivan of UW
- Tom Olien, UA visiting professor from Humber College, Toronto
- Anna Spitz, manager of the LAPLACE program
- Cathi Duncan, LAPLACE program coordinator

The UW students’ visit to Kitt Peak is part of a 2005 exchange program being sponsored by LAPLACE and UW. UA astronomy students will conduct marine biology field work, courtesy of the UW, next fall.

LAPLACE is a node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, an international research consortium that studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe. For more on LAPLACE, see

Contact Information

Anna Spitz 520-621-3234
Cathi Duncan 520-626-8792
Neville Woolf 520-621-3234

Lori Stiles | UA News Services
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