Kai Otieno

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Kai Angavu Otieno (born 2027 in Kisumu, Kenya, now living in Mountain View, USA) is a Kenyan American astrobiologist who is known for her research on extremophiles, especially her ground-breaking discovery of endoliths [1] [2] in the polar regions of Mars. She has won several awards, including the Drake Award [3] and the National Medal of Space Science [4], and was named newsmaker of the year by the Washington Post in 2067 [5]. Otieno has appeared on several streaming shows, including National Geographic’s Life Beyond Earth [6] and NASA’s New World TV [7], and has hosted her own mini-series on extremophiles titled Speculative Life (2062 – 2065)[8].


Early Life and Career

Otieno grew up in the port city of Kisumu to palaeontologist mother Xolani Otieno and piano virtuoso father Chege Mwangi [9]. From early childhood, she showed an interest in sea life, scuba diving, and hiking. As a teenager she accompanied her mother on palaeontological digs, sparking a life-long interest in fieldwork and ancient life forms.

After graduating from Daystar College in Nairobi, she earned her master’s degree at McGill University in Montreal (2050), Canada, and then went to complete her Ph.D. in astrobiology at Arizona State University (2054). She conducted her post-doctoral research at the SETI Institute (2055), where she is now a senior scientist.


Major Work

Otieno’s career started as a post-doctoral student as part of the SETI Institute’s Antarctic Rover expedition. She distinguished herself by making discoveries in extremophile research when she catalogued new cryptoendolith and psychophiles species in the McMurdo Dry Valley [10]. This led to a PI position on the NSAS/JAXA joint POLR mission to Mars’ north polar region. Otieno’s first significant breakthrough came with her identification of cryptoendoliths (both fossil and extant) indigenous to Mars’ Vastitas Borealis regions [11]. Her subsequent Mars missions catalogued eight more endolith species and two psychophiles species [12]

Otieno briefly made news in a controversy concerning the identification of the Martian Chasmoendolith Strain 137. She argued that the Strain 137 habitat in the Utopia Planetia region should be protected from mining and colonization, putting her in direct opposition to the trans-world development corporation COSCORP. Her petition lead to a compromise that allowed for limited colonization but no drilling. [13]

From 2065 to 2068 Otieno led missions to Enceladus and Ganymede that discovered a total of 23 extremophile species, including the Angavu hypolith [14] which was named in her honour. 

In 2069 Otieno was selected for the SETI Institute’s New Frontier Exploration Lab program [15], which is sending scientists and artists to well-studied exoplanets that exhibit possible signs of extraterrestrial life. She is currently on a mission to Rogue 45 in the Upper Scorpius region.


Personal life

Otieno was briefly engaged to screen actor Vic Torano. They met when she was consulting on the blockbuster movie Mars Chronicles – Cold Terror (2055) [16], where he starred in the title role. She also dated the Swedish philanthropist Ulf Jörgensen and Boomer Kidd, drummer of the girl punk band Octavia’s Dream Puppet [17]. Otieno plays the traditional Kenyan Kintungu and the electric bass.


External Links

  • Dr. K. A. Otieno website
  • Our Scientists – Kai A. Otieno, SETI Institute
  • Life on Mars Eats Rocks, Lecture at MIT
  • Protecting Life Beyond Earth, Lecture at the SETI Institute—-



1. Otieno, K. (2061) Life inside Rocks: Identification of cryptoendoliths and in the polar regions of Mars. Nature, (4) 35, p 287-322.

2. More Life on Mars! Meet Kai Otieno, the woman who discovered real-life stone eaters. Tim Wohlleben, LA Times, March 2059.

3. Kai Otieno Recipient of the 2067 Drake Award, SETI Institute. Archived from the original on 6 February 2071. Retrieved on 6 February 2071.

4. AAS Fellows and Medal Recipients 2069. Retrieved on 15 October 2072.

5. Kai Otieno: Newsmaker of the Year. Washington Post, 22 May 2067.

6. Life Beyond Earth, National Geographic, IMDB

7. New World TV, NASA, IMDB

8. Speculative Life, IMDB

9. Chege Mwangi, Global Records, Artist Profile. Retrieved on 11 March 2070.

10. Otieno, K. (2059) Limited colonization by cryptoendolith and psychophiles species in the McMurdo Dry Valley. Frontiers in Astrobiology, (2) 17, p 145-198.

11. Otieno, K., Chan, X. (2061) Widespread extant extremophile populations in the Vastitas Borealis regions, Journal of Astrobiology, (5) 21, p 89 – 107.

12. Otieno, K., Tarter, P., Chan, X. (2065). Interconnected colonies of endoliths and psychophiles in Utopia Planetia. Mars Astrobiology, 1 (4), p22-36.

13. CNN, Prominent Astrobiologist Goes Toe to Toe with COSCORP. Retrieved on 8 August 2069.

14. New extremophile named after groundbreaking astrobiologist Kai Otieno. Scientific American, July 2068.

15. New Frontier Exploration Lab announces crews. SETI Institute, 15 January 2069. Retrieved on 16 April 2070.

16. Mars Chronicles – Cold Terror, IMDB

17. Marching to her own drum: Octavia’s Dream Puppet. Rolling Stone, October 2061, Retrieved on 5 June 2067.

Rogue 45 | Kai Otieno | Heiko de Jong-Beaumont | Tan-e An | Trig Ruiz