Astrobiology Track @ ISDC 2016
(May 18-22, 2016. San Juan, Puerto Rico)

The International Space Development Conference 2016 (ISDC 2016) will have an astrobiology track focused on the broad diversity of astrobiology research including the origin, evolution, distribution, destiny, and search for life in the universe. This track will consist of invited and contributing presentations by scientists working on astrobiology related science or technology. The track is organized by Prof. Abel Méndez, Director of the PHL @ UPR Arecibo. Contributing abstracts are welcome.

Key speakers to ISDC 2016 include Ellen Ochoa (first Hispanic woman to go to space) and Alan Stern (principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto) among others. Invited talks also include the current research at the Arecibo Observatory and the Planetary Habitability Laboratory.

Important Links

Program and Abstracts - ISDC 2016 Astrobiology Track - Thursday, May 19, 2016 @ 10 AM

INOUTEvent TitleSpeaker
10:00 AM10:05 AMOpening RemarksAbel Méndez - PHL @ UPR Arecibo
10:05 AM10:30 AMKeynote - Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI)Douglas Vakoch - METI International
10:30 AM10:48 AM#1 - Life in Extreme Environments - Karstic Caves in Puerto RicoAngel Acosta - UPR Arecibo
10:48 AM11:06 AM#2 - The Cabo Rojo Salterns an Excellent Laboratory for Astrobiology StudiesLilliam Casillas - UPR Humacao
11:06 AM11:24 AM#3 - Assessing Tropical Forest Responses to a Warming ClimateTana E. Wood - USDA Forest Service
11:24 AM11:42 AM#4 - The Biological Potential of the Martian SubsurfaceEdgard G. Rivera-Valentín - Arecibo Observatory
11:42 AM12:00 PM#5 - How do we Measure the Habitability of Earth and Other Worlds?Abel Méndez - PHL @ UPR Arecibo

Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI): Actively Transmitting Signals to Civilizations Beyond Earth

Douglas Vakoch, President, METI International

Since 1960 astronomers engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have pointed radio telescopes to the heavens, seeking scientific evidence of life beyond Earth. If we detect a signal from another world, how should we respond? Should we do more, right now, to make ourselves known in the universe, even before first contact? Or is it dangerous to shout into the cosmos when we don’t know who’s out there? The messages we have already sent into our galaxy on NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, as well as the intermittent efforts to send messages by radio, have been symbolic efforts. It is now time to begin an ambitious, sustained, multigenerational project of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), transmitting powerful, information-rich radio signals to nearby stars. If we can succeed in explaining to extraterrestrials what it’s like to be human, we might even intrigue them enough to get a reply.

Douglas Vakoch, Ph.D., is President of METI International, a research organization devoted to Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He has edited a dozen books, including Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (2011), Civilizations Beyond Earth (2011), Psychology of Space Exploration (2011), Astrobiology, History, and Society (2013), Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication (2014), Extraterrestrial Altruism (2014), and The Drake Equation: Estimating the Prevalence of Extraterrestrial Life through the Ages (2015). Dr. Vakoch is an elected member of the International Institute for Space Law, and he serves as general editor of Springer’s book series Space and Society. His work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, Nature, Science, and Der Spiegel, and he has been interviewed on radio and television shows on the BBC, The Discovery Channel, and many others.

Life in Extreme Environments - Karstic Caves in Puerto Rico

Angel A. Acosta-Colón, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo (UPRA)

Extreme environments are habitats that few life forms can adapt. Conditions such as pH (can be alkaline or acidic), extreme temperatures, reduced oxygen, low energy systems and waterless habitats can produce a challenging settings for any organism. Most caves fulfill these conditions therefore are considered an extreme ecosystem. Cave-dwelling organisms had adapted to cave extreme environments; from micro- to meso-fauna. In Puerto Rico karstics cave, the high level of acidity (low pH) of the soil is created by the bats’ guano dropping at the cave and is affected by the bats’ diet. Additionally, these bats population can share the body heat and are able to raise the cave’s temperature (ranging from 18o C - 45o C). In cave were bats are present, the guano produced by the bats is enough to create an independent and complete ecosystem in which fungi and bacteria are food sources for arthropods. The diversity of the mesofauna (arthropods smaller than 2 mm) will vary based on the food sources and environmental conditions of the caves were the guano is situated. The objective of our study was to develop a methodology to truly characterize a cave and understand the cave mesofauna. Our results can help astrobiologist to develop techniques to find life in other planets.

Angel A. Acosta-Colón is a Physics professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo (UPRA). Acosta-Colon obtained a B.S. Applied Physics from UPR-Humacao, M.S. in Applied Physics (Geophysics) at Purdue University. Currently he is a professor of Electronics, Integrated Science and General Physics courses. His research consists in the development of digital cave cartography methods and the study of geophysicochemical and biological properties of karstics cave systems. At the present, he is also the Academic Research Official for the Integrated Science Multiuse Laboratory (ISMuL) and Aerospace Education Laboratory (AEL) sponsored by NASA-Puerto Rico Space Grant and UPRA. Also, he is the Project Coordinator of the Leading Aerospace Educational Development (LASED) sponsored by NASA. In the past he has been involved in educational projects funded by Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education.

The Cabo Rojo Salterns an Excellent Laboratory for Astrobiology Studies

Lilliam Casillas-Martinez, University of Puerto Rico at Humacao (UPRH)

The main research goal of the Cabo Rojo Salterns Microbial Observatory was to understand the role that the microbial communities played in determining the emerging mineralogy of hypersaline microbial mats. We also wanted to identify the genes and gene products involved in the precipitation and dissolution of these key minerals. Our undergraduate students received an intensive training in the field of Geomicrobiology in these locations making them an excellent scenario for Astrobiology studies. By the training of more than 150 undergraduates from Chemistry, Biology and Geology backgrounds a series of effective educational initiatives has been designed, imparted and assessed. These activities are particularly intended to allure more Latinas into Astrobiology using microbial mats and their microbes with special attention to their geological transformations. All these efforts directed toward changing the sad statistics that less than 5% of the Latinas in the US pursue a doctoral degree in Science.

Lilliam Casillas-Martinez Ph.D. is Associate Dean of Research Affairs at the University of Puerto Rico-Humacao (UPR-H). Casillas has lead several research and educational initiatives for the training of Hispanics in Geomicrobiology, especially through an NSF-funded Cabo Rojo Salterns Microbial Observatory grant. Her personal research experience in these highly masculine fields has ignited her desire to make these disciplines more accessible to other Latinas.

Assessing Tropical Forest Responses to a Warming Climate

Tana E. Wood, USDA Forest Service

Rapid and unprecedented increases in temperature are expected for tropical forested ecosystems in the coming decades. Understanding how such temperature change will affect the function and integrity of lowland tropical forests is of global concern due to the large role that these forests play in the global carbon cycle and the regulation of Earth’s climate. Natural temperature gradients in the tropics offer great opportunities for understanding temperature effects on plant and ecosystem functioning; however, predicted temperature regimes are not present in the lowland tropics today and the warm ends of such gradients are likely to see further warming over the coming decades. Thus, the only way to achieve predicted temperature regimes for these systems is to manipulatively warm the warmest forests.  Here, I present the experimental design and initial results from the first field warming experiment in a wet tropical forest in Puerto Rico (Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment; TRACE). By utilizing the mechanism-based approach presented here, we aim to improve Earth System Model parameterization of pools and fluxes of water, carbon, and nutrients.

Dr. Tana E. Wood is a Research Ecologist with the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry. Her research addresses the effects of climate and land-use change on soil and ecosystem-level processes. As an ecosystem ecologist and biogeochemist, her research spans a variety of perspectives, ranging from field studies that evaluate landscape-scale responses to variability in climate to laboratory experiments that elucidate linkages between microbes and the soil environment. Her ultimate goal is to conduct research that informs policy makers, improves the management of natural resources, and enables us to better predict the consequences of environmental change on the function and composition of ecosystems, including feedbacks to future climate change.

The Biological Potential of the Martian Subsurface

Edgard G. Rivera-Valentín, Arecibo Observatory

Martian geologic features have tantalized observers since the early days of telescope-enabled astronomy with identification of the so-called “canali”. Landed NASA missions to Mars have continued following the water in search for habitable abodes beyond Earth. Formation of pure liquid water on Mars, though, is largely inhibited due to its low temperature and pressure conditions; however, brine systems are more readily stable. Here I will discuss the possible liquescence of various brine systems, with an emphasis on the martian subsurface, where organisms could avoid the harsh martian radiation environment. I will specifically detail the expected conditions under which such liquids are formed and whether these conditions permit life as we know it to persist.

Dr. Edgard Rivera-Valentin is a staff scientist at the Arecibo Observatory (AO) in the Planetary Radar group. At AO he conducts observations of NEOs as part of NASA's Near-Earth Observations program. His research focuses on surface and interior processes on planetary bodies, such as searching for liquid water on Mars and studying impact craters on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

How do we Measure the Habitability of Earth and Other Worlds?

Abel Méndez, Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo

Quantitative measures of habitability are very important tools to advance the understanding and interpretation of potential habitats in the universe. They provide a mechanism to understand the complexity of habitat-life interactions at all scales, from microenvironments to planetary scales. These measures can be used to identify and characterize potentially habitable environments, prioritize and optimize search for life efforts, compare habitable environments in space and time, integrate multidisciplinary habitability studies, create classification systems, and even help the dissemination of results to the general public. This talk will present the latest developments on habitability metrics by the the Planetary Habitability Laboratory focusing on applications to extrasolar planets. The use of habitability metrics in astrobiology is an emerging field of science with a promising future of research opportunities for students and scientists.

Prof. Abel Méndez is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. He is the Director of the Planetary Habitability Laboratory, a virtual scientific and education laboratory dedicated to studies of the habitability of Earth, the Solar System, and extrasolar planets. Prof. Méndez is best known for creating the Earth Similarity Index and maintaining the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, a database of potentially habitable worlds. His research has been highlighted by many international publications such as National Geographic, Scientific American, and Discover Magazine.


A Few notes about  ISDC®  2016

ISDC® 2016: Space Beyond Borders celebrates the increasingly collaborative, multinational, multidisciplinary, and interconnected nature of space development in the 21st century. ISDC®2016 is where space leaders, astronauts, enthusiasts, and the next generations of young students and professionals contribute their knowledge, research, thoughts, and ideas on space development; its scientific, economic, technical, and social challenges, and its potential for the future of mankind.

The ISDC® is the annual event of the The National Space Society (NSS), an independent, educational, grassroots, non-profit organization dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization.  Founded as the National Space Institute (1974) and L5 Society (1975), which merged to form NSS in 1987, NSS is widely acknowledged as the preeminent citizen's voice on space.  NSS has over 50 chapters in the United States and around the world.  The society also publishes Ad Astra magazine, an award-winning periodical chronicling the most important developments in space.

For more information about ISDC®2016 please visit