Courses in Astrobiology

The Australian Centre for Astrobiology currently offers two courses in Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales. We plan to extend this offering in the future.

Current ACA courses:

PHYS1160 | Introduction to Astronomy and the Search for Life Elsewhere | Visit UNSW Handbook

BABS6741 | Astrobiology: Life in the Universe  | Visit UNSW Handbook

 

Fieldtrips

The Grand Tour

The ACA leads a fieldtrip to the remote outback of Western Australia every two years during the (Austral) winter months of June/July, which takes in The Grand Tour of important geological field sites relating to the evolution of life on our planet over 3.5 billion years (Ga) of Earth history as recorded by the well preserved successions of the Pilbara region.

Starting at Denham, half way up the west coast of Western Australia, the tour spends a day investigating the living microbial communities that form large columnar stromatolites and several distinct types of microbial mats at Shark Bay. The evening is spent at a shearing shed, where tall tales are told over goat stew and the participants are introduced to the wonders of the southern sky at night. From there, the tour travels north and inland, stepping back through time with stops to look at stromatolites that are 1.8 Ga, stromatolites and glaciogenic rocks that were deposited across the rise of atmospheric oxygen at 2.3 Ga, before delving into the spectacular gorges of the Hamersley Range in Karijini National Park, where we investigate the famous Neoarchean banded iron-formations and a meteorite impact horizon of the ~2.5 Ga Hamersley Group. Further north, and further back in time, the tour looks at the 2.7 Ga stromatolites of the Tumbiana Formation (Fortescue Group), and then we go really far back into deep time and investigate a number of famous horizons of the Pilbara Craton that yield both controversial, and very convincing evidence for life in rocks that are 3.5 Ga around the town of Marble Bar, and in the North Pole Dome. Night times during this period are spent camping out under the stars, either in swags, or in tents. Evenings at this time of the year are balmy and warm, with day time temperatures warm to hot (25-35 degrees Celsius). The trip takes 8-10 days and costs are ex Perth, including airfares Peth-Denham, and Port Hedland-Perth.

Early Notice for 2015

Following the success of the first “Grand Tour” during 2013 we will repeat the exercise during June 2015. As a contribution to the astrobiology community the Australian Centre for Astrobiology will run a field trip to sites that every astrobiologist or geobiologist should see at least once in their lives. It will be a high level educational experience that will enrich the research and teaching programs of the participants. Included will be the extant stromatolites of Shark Bay, the banded iron formations and iron ore mines of the Hamersley Basin, the putatively cyanobacterial stromatolites of the 2.7 Ga Fortescue Group, and the 3.35-3.49 Ga fossiliferous and other units of the Pilbara Craton with what is arguably the oldest convincing evidence of life on Earth. The tour will be led by Malcolm Walter and will be in June 2015. Places will be limited. 

 
Please register your interest now at malcolm.walter@unsw.edu.au.

Satellite view of Western Australia, showing station locations of the Grand Tour.

 

Living stromatolites at Shark Bay.

 

The banded iron-formations of the 2.5 Ga Hamersley Range, Karijini National Park.

 

Earth’s oldest convincing evidence of life; 3.5 Ga stromatolites from the Dresser Formation, North Pole Dome, Pilbara Craton.

 

Field Workshops

Pilbara Field School 2014

An 8-day field mapping school in the world-famous Pilbara Craton of Western Australia is being presented by Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, co-director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology of the University of New South Wales and one of the most experienced geologists in the world on ancient life on Earth.

The field school will provide participants with the opportunity to examine in detail, and undertake detailed mapping of, famous exposures of the earliest life on Earth - 3.5 and 3.35 billion year old stromatolites in the North Pole Dome. The field school is designed to give participants the chance to observe these ancient fossils in their natural settings and to spend time mapping key exposures in order to gain experience in geological mapping techniques and an appreciation for the complexity of geological interpretations and habitat reconstruction in these very old rocks.

Both experienced geologists and mapping novices alike are welcome, particularly students and scientists with an interest in astrobiology, but educators, administrators and others with an interest in early life on earth and the search for life on Mars are also encouraged to attend.

When: From June 28 to July 6, 2014

How: Access to the sites will be by 4-wheel drive vehicles. Indoor accommodation will be provided near mapping sites, but participants will have the option to camp Ozzie style, under the stars. All food provided.

Cost: AUD $3,000 pp., departing from and returning to Perth, Western Australia

Expressions of interest to: m.vankranendonk@unsw.edu.au

Register through the Australian Earth Sciences Convention: http://www.aesc2014.gsa.org.au/registration/

Left: World’s oldest convincing evidence of life; 3.48 Ga stromatolites from the North Pole Dome, Western Australia.

Right: Geological map of part of the 3.48 Ga Dresser Formation, showing the relationships between stromatolites, barite veins, hydrothermal chert breccias and overlying sandstones.

 

Conferences

Astrobiology Australia

In 2013, the ACA ran a successful conference on astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, with over 80 participants from around Australia and overseas. Specifically targeting student participation, the conference covered a wide range of topics, reflecting the scope of astrobiological research in Australia. Special guest lectures that were made available to the General Public included one by Jill Tarter, Director of the SETI Institute, at the Powerhouse Museum, and one by Prof. Roger Summons of MIT, who presented a talk on recent findings of the Mars Scientific Laboratory, the Curiosity Rover.

In 2015, the ACA is planning to host another Astrobiology Conference, but this time it will be titled Astrobiology Australasia and will focus on being a platform for astrobiological research being conducted by the wider Australiasia community, recognising the contributions being made by Australia, China, and India in this field. As we did in 2013, the 2015 conference is being planned to piggy back onto the end of the Grand Tour, giving participants travelling to Australia the chance to see world-class geology in addition to being exposed to world-class astrobiological research.

Participants at the 2013 Astrobiology Australia Conference, held at the University of New South Wales.