Edinburgh Local

Helping Prisoners imagine life beyond bars

Astrobiologists at the University have been running workshops in two Scottish prisons to imagine life on Mars.

Life Beyond Mars
Life Beyond Mars

A four-week course to design stations on the surface of Mars involving talks and workshops is being held in Scottish prisons so inmates can think about living different lives, whether on Mars or beyond the prison walls.

In a collaboration between the Scottish Prison Service and the University’s UK Astrobiology Centre, led by Professor Charles Cockell, the classes have so far been taught at Edinburgh’s Prison at Saughton and at Glenochil Prison in Clackmannanshire.

During the course, academics work with prisoners to create innovative designs for stations on the surface of Mars, with the purpose of engaging them in the future exploration of Space. Together, they study what it would be like to explore the planet, try creative writing and design, and even composing ‘Martian Blues’ music. Inmates have also been experimenting to discover whether crops grown in prison gardens might grow on other planets.  

The Astrobiologists are planning to take the scheme into other Scottish prisons, including high security Shotts Prison and to Low Moss Prison near Glasgow.  

The findings will be published by the British Interplanetary Society which is the UK’s leading think tank on Space development and a forum for new concepts and ideas in exploring and utilising Space. 

Prison reform charities have welcomed the scheme, seeing any form of education as a very positive way to help prisoners both while they are in prison and also once they’re released. Science fiction and fantasy novels are very popular in prison libraries, for those who can read, and so the Life Beyond course has a broad appeal to inmates.


‘Our civilisation has huge challenges but there are also huge opportunities for everyone.  Whoever you are, science education, and particularly space education, is enriching.

’Professor Charles Cockell, Professor of Astrobiology, University of Edinburgh


Professor Cockell’s work in prisons is part of the work does with the Astrobiology Academy which he founded and runs. This is an initiative which writes science lesson plans and curriculum for primary and secondary school teachers using astrobiology as the core material.

Professor Cockell is a winner of our Chancellor’s Award for Teaching in recognition of his personal dedication and impact in teaching and research. His research in Astrobiology seeks to understand the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the Universe. In particular, he investigates life in extreme environments and understanding the diversity, processes and bio-signatures of life in extremes. His work is conducted within the UK Centre for Astrobiology, a virtual astrobiology centre established in 2011 that is affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

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