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Astrobiologists

History

Throughout the course of history, humans have been interested in science. Taxonomy, the science of classifying living things, was practiced whenever farmers chose to plant certain seeds they found superior to others. Ecology, the study of living things in relation to their environment, was practiced as farmers learned to rotate their crops, in order to better take care of the soil and produce strong crop yields. Simple principles of genetics, the science of genes and heredity, was applied by Gregor Mendel during his crossbreeding experiments. Many more scientists and inventors through the centuries have used the principles of chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics, to help understand the history of people, animals, and plants, as well as help improve the quality of everyday life.

Astrobiology, the study of the origin, development, and distribution of all forms of life, grew from many different specialties of life and earth science. Its name is derived from the Greek words astron (star), bios (life), and logos (science). As astrobiologists seek to find how life began and is affected by evolution and environment, they use the ideas, techniques, and philosophy of such sciences as geology, astronomy, chemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, biogeochemistry, and oceanography. They use the same concepts to study whether life exists on other planets. In fact, most astrobiologists receive their early education and training in other sciences, before specializing in the field of astrobiology.

Only a few universities in the United States offer graduate programs in astrobiology. One of these, the University of Washington, offers the only doctoral program geared to find and study life in outer space. Private research institutes, such as the SETI Institute, employs astrobiologists to staff research projects such as understanding the biosphere of Mars or how perennial hot springs exist in the Canadian Arctic. Many astrobiologists work at NASA's research institutes, including the Ames Research Center in Calif.

In 1998, NASA organized the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), a partnership between the government agency, academic institutes, and research centers throughout the United States. Today, about 840 scientists, researchers, and educators work together at the NAI to learn more about the living universe. In 2001 NASA established the Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program to help foster the development of technology for use in exploring extreme environments, such as those that might be found on other planets.

In 2009, water, a key component for life, was discovered on the Moon, suggesting that water may be present on other planets and space bodies believed to be barren.