University scientists are to investigate the extreme conditions at which life can survive on Earth and in space.
A team from across the UK, led by researchers at Edinburgh, will carry out experiments including recreating conditions on Mars in the lab.
The UK Centre for Astrobiology will also develop theories to inform new lab tests, field work and space missions.
A lab facility more than a kilometre underground is being developed by the Centre to help scientists study microbial life forms found deep below the surface of the Earth.
Its researchers will also seek to develop robotic and human exploration technologies for the investigation of asteroids, the Moon and Mars.
Very challenging questions, such as whether life exists outside our own world, are best answered by bringing together some of the finest minds in the field.
An opening event for the UKCA is being marked by a public talk on the search for life in the universe by Dr Christopher McKay of the NASA Ames Research Centre.
Dr McKay will also discuss results from Mars’ Curiosity rover.
Scientists at the Centre will seek to answer questions such as how life originated, and whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe.
They will also investigate the extremes of climate on earth at which life can survive, in order to define the limits of life.
Researchers will also examine whether it may be possible to establish a permanent human presence beyond our own planet.
Pooling resources in the UK Centre for Astrobiology should support rapid advances in our understanding of the possibilities – and limits – of where life can exist, on Earth or elsewhere.
At Edinburgh, scientists from Physics and Astronomy, Geosciences and Biological Sciences will take part in the Centre.
The UKCA is affiliated to the NASA Astrobiology Institute, with which it will collaborate, and its opening will be followed by a three-day astrobiology conference in Edinburgh.
A free online course in Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, taught by the UKCA, has attracted more than 40,000 students from around the world.
This summer, the UKCA will host a summer academy for school pupils. This will give talented students from across the UK the chance to find out more about astrobiology.
Students will have the opportunity to take part in fieldwork, group tasks and lectures, and will study astronomy, geology, biology and other disciplines.