2020/08/18 | Research | Environment & Matter

A duo in search of life in space

Andreas Riedo and Niels Ligterink are searching for life in space. A portrait of two space explorers who are already eagerly awaiting how mankind will react to this, should their instrument ORIGIN find extraterrestrial life one day.

Brigit Bucher

Andreas Riedo was already fascinated by space as a child: "As a little boy, I made my own solar system and hung it on the ceiling." Today he is working on the question of whether life exists outside of earth and is developing instruments to detect biosignatures, i.e. traces of life.

Andreas Riedo
Andreas Riedo © University of Bern, Image: Vera Knöpfel
Niels Ligterink Image: Courtesy of Niels Ligterink

His colleague Niels Ligterink, with whom Andreas Riedo developed the ORIGIN mass spectrometer (for more information see infobox at the end of the text), is no less driven by the big questions: "I am fascinated by molecules that are present in strange and exotic locations in space and the chemical reactions that take place outside of earth."

Into the desert and back to Bern with NASA

Andreas Riedo studied astrophysics at the University of Bern and received his doctorate from the Space Research and Planetary Sciences division in 2014. In 2016 a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation gave him the unique opportunity to work in the group led by the world-famous astrobiologist Pascale Ehrenfreund at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Thanks to a Marie Curie Fellowship, he was able to extend his stay until September 2019. In the meantime, he received one of the prestigious Einstein scholarships from the Einstein Foundation in Berlin and was able to continue his research at the Free University of Berlin.

In this context, Andreas Riedo tells us: "At the same time NASA was showing great interest in the heart of ORIGIN, the mass analyzer, and invited us to participate in the NASA project ARADS. ARADS stands for 'Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies' and is a NASA project to test the best instruments for future missions to find traces of life on extraterrestrial planets. NASA wants to use our instrument on their rover in the Atacama Desert in Chile; this is the ideal place to test space instruments, as the conditions there are similar to those on Mars, where life is still being searched for and suspected."

This was the call to return home to the University of Bern, where Andreas Riedo can now concentrate intensively on the further development of ORIGIN and its mass analyzer in order to prepare it ideally for possible future missions. 

A long journey for the little space miracle from Bern

Niels Ligterink completed his doctorate in astrochemistry at the Leiden Observatory after his studies in chemistry. In his doctoral thesis he investigated the formation of molecules in star-formating regions where ice plays an important role: "Similar chemical processes take place, for example, on Europa, Jupiter's icy moon," says Niels Ligterink. This faraway moon – the journey there with a space probe will take about 8 years – is the kind of place where ORIGIN could one day be used.

Niels Ligterink was hired at the University of Bern to work with Andreas Riedo to develop ORIGIN so that it can search for life on Europa. "Underneath layers of ice that are kilometers thick, there are oceans where life might exist, which could be proven thanks to ORIGIN," Niels Ligterink tells us.

The ideal conditions for space research at the University of Bern


"The conditions here in Bern are ideal for building state-of-the-art space instruments," says Andreas Riedo. This is not least due to the history of space research in Bern: "Since the participation of the University of Bern in the first Apollo mission on the moon in 1969 with the solar wind experiment, numerous instruments have been built here in Bern for the large space agencies' space missions, such as NASA, ESA or Roscosmos." In addition, the minimal red tape compared to other universities allows for a more effective concentration on science, Andreas Riedo continues.

And Niels Ligterink also raves about the ideal conditions: "We benefit greatly from the unique interdisciplinary environment at the University of Bern." There are not only researchers with specialist knowledge, for example in geology, chemistry, mass spectrometry, and laser physics, who work together but also a large and highly qualified engineering department. "This mixture of people, expertise, and experience creates an environment that is ideal for the development of a system like ORIGIN."

"This will have a dramatic impact"

And what do they both think, how will human consciousness be affected if life is discovered in the universe one day?

Niels Ligterink believes that it would take years or decades for mankind to understand and appreciate the significance of such a discovery: "You can compare it to the first moon landing, the importance of which was not known to many people at that time, and it's only when we look back now that we see what an achievement it was." It will probably be similar for the first discoveries of extraterrestrial life, but: "Eventually the impact on human consciousness will be much, much greater than it was with the first moon landing though."

Andreas Riedo adds: "The discovery of extraterrestrial life would have a dramatic impact on our society's thinking since we would know for the first time that we are not alone. And maybe we will succeed in this discovery with ORIGIN. I'm already really excited, in any case."

About Andreas Riedo and NIels Ligterink

Andreas Riedo

Andreas Riedo has been working in space research and in the design and validation of space instruments since 2010. The successful writing of scholarship applications enabled him to effectively pursue his own research career and to collaborate with world-renowned experts in the field of astrobiology and space instrumentation. His main research interest is the development of innovative measurement methods to detect life using advanced laser-based analytical space instruments. The research network built up in recent years, combined with his expertise in the field of life-detection instruments, has enabled him to participate in various international research projects, including those by NASA and ESA.

Dr. Andreas Riedo
University of Bern, Physics Institute, Space Research and Planetology (WP)
Tel: +41 31 631 30 71
Email: andreas.riedo@space.unibe.ch


Niels Ligterink

Niels Ligterink has been a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bern since 2018. He studied chemistry at the Free University of Amsterdam and subsequently received his doctorate in astrochemistry from the Leiden University. Niels Ligterink is interested in the chemical processes that take place in space and the information that these processes can provide about the origin of life and the formation of stars and planets. He develops instruments for space missions to detect molecules on extraterrestrial planets, conducts laboratory experiments to understand chemical processes, and uses telescopic observations to study molecules around distant stars.

Dr. Niels F.W. Ligterink
University of Bern, Center for Space and Habitabilty (CSH)
Tel: +41 31 631 44 15
Email: niels.ligterink@csh.unibe.ch  

Media Release about ORIGIN

The most sensitive instrument in the search for life in space comes from Bern

Researchers at the University of Bern have developed the highly sensitive ORIGIN instrument, which can provide proof of the smallest amounts of traces of life, for future space missions. Space agencies such as NASA have already expressed interest in testing ORIGIN for future missions. The instrument may be used on missions to the ice moons of Europa (Jupiter) and Enceladus (Saturn), for example.


About the author

Brigit Bucher is Head of Media Relations and the “Space” representative at the University of Bern Communication & Marketing Department.