The Habitable Zone Gets Poked, Tweaked and Stretched to the Limits

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To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the "Goldilocks" or habitable zone around stars--where it's not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)
To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the “Goldilocks” or habitable zone around stars–where it’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)

For more than 20 years now — even before the first detection of an extra-solar planet — scientists have posited, defined and then debated the existence and nature of a habitable zone.  It’s without a doubt a central scientific concept, and  the idea has caught on with the public (and the media) too.  The discovery of “habitable zone planets” has become something of a staple of astronomy and astrophysics.

But beneath the surface of this success is a seemingly growing discomfort about how the term is used. Not only do scientists and the general public have dissimilar understandings of what a habitable zone entails, but scientists have increasingly divergent views among themselves as well.

And all this is coming to the fore at a time when a working definition of the habitable zone is absolutely essential to planning for what scientists and enthusiasts hope will be a long-awaited major space telescope focused first and foremost on exoplanets.  If selected by NASA as a flagship mission for the 2030s, how such a telescope is designed and built will be guided by where scientists determine they have the best chance of finding signs of extraterrestrial life — a task that has ironically grown increasingly difficult as more is learned about those distant solar systems and planets.

Most broadly, the habitable zone is the area around a star where orbiting planets could have conditions conducive to life.  Traditionally, that has mean most importantly orbiting far enough from a star that it doesn’t become a desiccated wasteland and close enough that it is not forever frozen.  In this broad definition, the sometimes presence of liquid water on the surface of a planet is the paramount issue in terms of possible extraterrestrial life.

 The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

It was James Kasting of Penn State University, Daniel Whitmire, then of Louisiana State University, and Ray Reynolds of NASA’s Ames Research Center who defined the modern outlines of a habitable zone, though others had weighed in earlier.  But Kasting and the others wrote with greater detail and proposed a model that took into account not only distance from the host star, but also the presence of planetary systems that could maintain relatively stable climates by cycling essential compounds.

Their concept became something of a consensus model, and remains an often-used working definition.

But with the detection now of thousands of exoplanets, as well as a better understanding of potential habitability in our solar system and the workings of atmospheric gases around planets, some scientists argue the model is getting outdated.  Not wrong, per se, but perhaps not broad enough to account for the flood of planetary and exoplanetary research and discovery since the early 1990s.

Consider, first our own habitable zone:  Two bodies often discussed as potentially habitable are the moons Europa and Enceladus. Both are far from the solar system’s traditional habitable zone, and are heated by gravitational forces from Jupiter and Saturn.

And then there’s the Mars conundrum.  The planet, now viewed as unable to support life on the surface, is currently within the range of our sun’s habitable zone.  Yet when Mars was likely quite wet and warmer and “habitable” some 3.5 billion years ago — as determined by the Curiosity rover team — it was outside the traditional habitable zone because the sun was less luminous and so Mars would ostensibly be frozen.

Remnants of an ancient alluvial fan have been found at Gale Crater, Mars, indicating that water flowed there for long periods of time billions of years ago.
Remnants of an ancient alluvial fan have been found at Gale Crater, Mars, indicating that water flowed there for long periods of time billions of years ago. Traditional habitable zone models cannot account for this wet and warm period on ancient Mars.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Just as the source of heat keeping water on the moons liquid is not the sun, scientists have also proposed that even giant and distant planets with thick atmospheres of molecular hydrogen, a powerful greenhouse gas, could maintain liquid water on their surfaces.  Some have suggested that a hydrogen-rich atmosphere could keep a planet ten times further from the sun than Earth warm enough for possible life.

It was Raymond Pierrehumbert  at University of Chicago and Eric Gaidos of the University of Hawaii who first proposed this possibility in 2011, but others have taken it further.  Perhaps most forcefully has been Sara Seager at MIT, who has argued that the exoplanet community’s definition of a habitable zone needs to be broadened to keep up with new thinking and discoveries.  This is what she wrote in an influential 2013 Science paper:

“Planet habitability is planet specific, even with the main imposed criterion that surface liquid water must be present. This is because the huge range of planet diversity in terms of masses, orbits, and star types should extend to planet atmospheres and interiors, based on the stochastic nature of planet formation and subsequent evolution. The diversity of planetary systems extends far beyond planets in our solar system. The habitable zone could exist from about 0.5 AU out to 10 AU (astronomical units, the distance from the sun to the Earth) for a solar-type star, or even beyond, depending on the planet’s interior and atmosphere characteristics. As such, there is no universal habitable zone applicable to all exoplanets.”

Seager even makes room for the many rogue planet floating unconnected to a solar system as possible candidates, with the same kind of warming deep hydrogen covering that Pierrehumbert proposed. Clearly, her goal is to add exoplanets that are far less like Earth to the possible habitable mix.

 

In this artist's concept shows "The Behemoth," an enormous comet-like cloud of hydrogen bleeding off of a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 30 light-years from Earth. The hydrogen is evaporating from the planet due to extreme radiation from the star, but on many exoplanets it remains a thick covering. (NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon, STScI)
In this artist’s concept shows “The Behemoth,” an enormous comet-like cloud of hydrogen bleeding off of a warm, Neptune-sized planet just 30 light-years from Earth. The hydrogen is evaporating from the planet due to extreme radiation from the star, but on many exoplanets it remains a thick covering. (NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon, STScI)

Meanwhile, scientists have been adding numerous conditions beyond liquid surface water to enable a planet to turn from a dead to a potentially habitable one.  Kasting and Whitmore did include some of these conditions in their initial 1993 paper, but the list is growing.  A long-term stable climate is considered key, for instance, and that in turn calls for the presence of features akin to plate tectonics, volcanoes, magnetic fields and cycling into the planet interior of carbon, silicates and more.  Needless to say, these are not planetary features scientists will be able to identify for a long time to come.

So the disconnect grows between how exoplanet hunters and researchers use the term “habitable zone” and how the public understands its meaning.  Scientists describe a myriad of conditions and add that they are “necessary but not sufficient.”  Meanwhile, many exoplanet enthusiasts in the public are understandably awaiting a seemingly imminent discovery of extraterrestrial life on one of the many habitable zone planets announced.  (In fairness, no Earth-sized planet orbiting a sun-like star has been identified so far.)

Kasting, for one, does not see all this questioning of the necessary qualities of a habitable zone as a problem.

“Push back is what scientists do; we’re brought up to question authority.  My initial work is over 20 years old and a lot has been learned since then.  Not all things that are written down are correct.”

James Kasting of Penn State University, a pioneer in defining a habitable zone.
James Kasting of Penn State University, a pioneer in defining a habitable zone.

But in this case, he says, a lot of the conventional habitable zone concept is pretty defensible.

What’s more, it’s practical and useful.  While not discounting the possibility of life on exo-moons, on giant planets surrounded by warming molecular hydrogen or other possibilities, he says that the technical challenges to making a telescope that could capture the light necessary to analyze these moons or far-from-their-star planets would be so faint as to be undetectable given today’s (or even tomorrow’s) technology.  With those two exoplanet-focused telescopes (LUVOIR and Hab-Ex) now under formal study for a possible mission in the 2030s, Kasting thinks it’s essential to think inside, rather than outside, the box.

“I think that when the teams sit down and think about the science and technology of those projects, our habitable zone is the only one that make sense.  If you design a telescope to capture possible evidence of life as far out as 10 AU, you give up capability to study with the greatest precision planets close in the traditional habitable zone.  That doesn’t mean the telescope can’t look for habitable worlds outside the traditional habitable zone, but but don’t design the telescope with that as a high priority.  Better to focus on what we know does exist.”

Coming soon:  The Habitability Inde

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Movement in The Search For ExoLife

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A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI
A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI

Assuming for a moment that life exists on some exoplanets, how might researchers detect it?

This is hardly a new question.  More than ten years ago, competing teams of exo-scientists and engineers came up with proposals for a NASA flagship space observatory capable of identifying possible biosignatures on distant planets. No consensus was reached, however, and no mission was developed.

But early this year, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz announced the formation of four formal Science and Technology Definition Teams to analyze proposals for a grand space observatory for the 2030s.  Two of them in particular would make possible the kind of super-high resolution viewing needed to understand the essential characteristics of exoplanets.  As now conceived, that would include a capability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres that are associated with living things.

These two exo-friendly missions are the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared (LUVOIR) Surveyor and the Habitable Exoplanet (HabEx) Imaging Mission.   Both would be on the scale of, and in the tradition of, scientifically and technically ground-breaking space observatories such as the Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.  These flagship missions provide once in a decade opportunities to move space science dramatically forward, and not-surprisingly at a generally steep cost.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope (HDST) at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years (z = 2) The renderings show a one-hour observation for each space observatory. Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high image quality of HDST resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only HDST can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)500 light years away, as imaged by Hubble and potential of the kind of telescope the exoplanet community is working towards.
A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and as viewed by the kind of high definition space telescope now under study.   Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high definition image resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only high definition can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. (D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Because the stakes are so high, planning and development takes place over decades — twenty years is the typical time elapsed between the conception of a grand flagship mission and its launch.  So while what is happening now with the science and technology definition teams  is only a beginning — albeit one with quite a heritage already — it’s an essential, significant and broadly-supported start.  Over the next three years, the teams will undertake deep dives into the possibilities and pitfalls of LUVOIR and HabEx, as well as the two other proposals.  There’s a decent chance that a version of one of the four will become a reality.

Aki Roberge, an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and staff scientist of the LUVOIR study, said that the explicit charge to the teams is to cooperate rather than compete.  Any of the four observatories under consideration, she said, would enable transformative science. But from an exoplanet perspective, the possibilities she described are pretty remarkable.

“What we’re aiming for is the capability to really search for the true Earth analogues out there, the Earth-sized planets in the habitable zones of sun-like stars.  We need to understand their atmospheres, their climates, their compositions.  And ultimately, the goal is to search for life.”

The co-chair of the HabEx team, Bertrand Menneson of the Jet Propulsion Lab, said the goals are the same:  A major jump forward in our ability to understand exoplanets and a serious effort to find life.

actual image of venus crossing in front of the sun. Exoplanets will not be imaged like this in our lifetimes, but this is the goal.
Actual image of Venus crossing in front of the sun in 2012 taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Exoplanets will not be imaged like this in our lifetimes, but this is the ultimate goal.

The field of exoplanet detection and research has exploded over the past two decades, with an essential boost from increasingly capable observatories on Earth and in space.  With at least three more major exoplanet-friendly space telescopes scheduled (or planned) for the next decade — as well as first light at several enormous ground-based mirrors — the brisk pace of discoveries is sure to continue.

So why are so many scientists in the field convinced that a grand, Flagship-class NASA space observatory is essential, and that it needs to be developed and built ground-up with exoplanet research in mind?  Can’t the instruments in use today, and planned for the next decade, provide the kind of observing power needed to continue making breakthroughs?

Well, no, they can’t and won’t.  That has been the conclusion of numerous studies over the years, and most recently an in-depth effort by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA,)   http://www.hdstvision.org/report which last summer called for development of a 12-meter (about 44 feet across) High Definition Space Telescope with the super high resolution needed to study exoplanets.  Generally speaking, a larger light-collecting mirror allows astronomers and astrophysicists to see further and better.

 

A direct, to-scale, comparison between the primary mirrors of the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb Space Telescope, and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope (HDST). In this concept, the HDST primary is composed of 36 1.7 meter segments. Smaller segments could also be used. An 11 meter class aperture could be made from 54 1.3 meters segments. Image credit: C. Godfrey (STScI)
A direct, to-scale, comparison between the primary mirrors of the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb Space Telescope, and the High Definition Space Telescope (HDST) proposed by the AURA group. In this concept, the HDST primary is composed of 36 1.7 meter segments.  The LUVOIR mirror under consideration is in the eight to twelve meters range. C. Godfrey (STScI)

The group, headed by Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington and Sara Seager of MIT, began with this overview of the state of play when it comes to exoplanets, instruments, and what is possible now and might be in the future:

While we now have a small sample of potentially habitable planets around other stars, our current telescopes lack the power to confirm that these alien worlds are truly able to nurture life. This small crop of worlds may have temperate, hospitable surface conditions, like Earth. But they could instead be so aridly cold that all water is frozen, like on Mars, or so hot that all potential life would be suffocated under a massive blanket of clouds, like on Venus. Our current instruments cannot tell the difference for the few rocky planets known today, nor in general, for the larger samples to be collected in the future. Without better tools, we simply cannot see their atmospheres and surfaces, so our knowledge is limited to only the most basic information about the planet’s mass and/ or size, and an estimate of the energy reaching the top of the planet’s atmosphere. But if we could directly observe exoplanet atmospheres, we could search for habitability indicators (such as water vapor from oceans) or for signs of an atmosphere that has been altered by the presence of life (by searching for oxygen, methane, and/or ozone).

A central goal for both LUVOIR and HabEx is to provide that “seeing” through much more sophisticated direct imaging — that is, capturing the actual reflected light from exoplanets rather than relying on indirect techniques and measurements.  The many indirect methods of finding and studying exoplanets have played and will continue to play an essential role.  But there is now a community consensus that next generation direct imaging from space is the gold standard.

 

Kepler exoplanets candidates, both confirmed and unconfirmed, orbiting G, K, and M type main sequence stars, by radii and fraction of the total. (Natalie Batalha and Wendy Stenzel, NASA Ames)
There are more than 4,000 Kepler exoplanets candidates, both confirmed and unconfirmed, orbiting G, K, and M type main sequence stars.  This graphic shows their distribution by radii and fraction of the total. (Natalie Batalha and Wendy Stenzel, NASA Ames)

That a major space observatory for the 2030s just might be exoplanet-focused reflects a definite maturing of the field.  From a science perspective, the discoveries of the Kepler mission in particular made clear that exoplanets are everywhere, and not infrequently orbiting in habitable zones.  The work of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and especially the conclusion that the planet once was wet and “habitable,” added to the general interest and excitement about possible life beyond Earth.

And then there are the lessons learned from the earlier bruising battles among exoplanet scientists, who had developed a reputation for serious in-fighting.  THEIA, the Telescope for Habitable Exoplanets and Interstellar/Intergalactic Astronomy, was put forward as a flagship direct imaging mission in 2010, when the Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey that sets priorities for the field was being put together by the National Academy of Sciences.  But THEIA was not adopted.

A cartoon from Chas Beichman’s ExoPAG presentation illustrates the infighting within the exoplanet science community during the 2010 decadal survey, with cosmologists, represented by “dark energy” to the side, ready to reap the benefits of that debate.
A cartoon from a exoplanet science presentation illustrates the infighting within the exoplanet science community during the 2010 decadal survey, with cosmologists, represented by “dark energy” to the side, ready to reap the benefits of that debate. ( Chas Beichman)

With the 2020 Decadal Survey on the horizon, exoplanet scientists have tried to limit conflicts and to work with the larger astronomy community.  The formal NASA/community study group, the Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG), brought two related groups together and ultimately recommended the intensified study for LUVOIR, HabEx and the two other proposals —  which focus on black holes, ancient galaxy formation, and other aspects of the early cosmos.  https://exep.jpl.nasa.gov/files/exep/ExoPAG_Large_Missions.pdf

When completed, the studies will go to the National Academy of Sciences for further review, discussion, and ultimately a recommendation to NASA regarding which project should go forward.

The leader of the ExoPAG  group was astronomer Scott Gaudi of Ohio State University, who specializes in characterizing exoplanets but played no favorites in the ExoPAG report and recommendations.

“What we want is to set up a fair process of intense review so the most compelling science can be chosen to go forward.  At this point, we don’t know if the necessary technologies will be available in time, and we don’t know what the costs will be.  There’s only so much money that comes from NASA for our (astrophysics) community, and maybe a top choice will cost more than the community is willing to spend.  So there are so many factors to consider.”

(The LUVOIR mission is generally considered to be somewhat more ambitious than HabEx, and would require a larger telescope mirror — greater than 8 meters across –and more funding.  Flagship missions are expensive, as NASA learned once again with the James Webb telescope, which will have cost $8.8 billion by the time of its scheduled launch.)

I asked Gaudi if the seemingly substantial public interest in exoplanets could play any role in subsequent decision-making, and he replied that it possibly would.  “In the past five or ten years, exoplanets have become a prominent topic for sure.  And the public is clearly very, very interested in that topic.”  But that public interest, he said, won’t mean much if the science and technical feasibility isn’t there.

Scott Gaudi, chairman of ExoPAG in 2015.
Scott Gaudi, chairman of ExoPAG in 2015.

We won’t know for some years if the stars will align in a way that will lead to a major observatory with direct imaging and exoplanets at its center.  But for those active in the field, the opportunity to take part in a major effort to formally determine its scientific merit and feasibility is irresistible.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a research space scientist at Goddard, was selected to be a deputy on the LUVOIR science and technology team, which he sees as a much-anticipated “proof of concept” effort for the exoplanet research of the future.

Between 12 and 18 scientists and engineers will be selected by NASA headquarters for each team, and Domagal-Goldman said it’s essential that they make up a broad and inter-disciplinary group, including people from industry.  Scientists from abroad not associated with an American institution can’t be formal members, but they can observe and may become more involved if their national space agencies decide to join in the effort. He encourages researchers — from newly minted PhDs to career scientists — to nominate themselves to join.

“Nobody gets paid for this, it’s a labor of love,” he said.  “But what would be more satisfying than having some of your intellectual contribution go into the formulation of missions like these.

“Direct imaging of exoplanets is clearly a direction where the community is headed. These are the missions of the future in one form or another, and if you’re a PhD or postdoc who’s qualified, this could be your career.”

Of course, it just might make the greatest discovery of modern science — finding life beyond Earth.

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The Exoplanet Era

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Many, and perhaps most stars have solar systems with numerous planets, as in this artist rendering of Kepler 11. (NASA)

Throughout the history of science, moments periodically arrive when new fields of knowledge and discovery just explode.

Cosmology was a kind of dream world until Edwin Hubble established that the universe was expanding, and doing so at an ever-faster rate. A far more vibrant and scientific discipline was born. On a more practical level, it was only three decades ago that rudimentary personal computers were still a novelty, and now computer-controlled, self-driving cars are just on the horizon. And not that long ago, genomics and the mapping of the human genome also went into hyperspeed, and turned the mysterious into the well known.

Most frequently, these bursts of scientific energy and progress are the result of technological innovation, coupled with the far-seeing (and often lonely and initially unsupported) labor and insights of men and women who are simply ahead of the curve.

We are at another of those scientific moments right now, and the subject is exoplanets – the billions (or is it billions of billions?) of planets orbiting stars other than our sun.

The 20th anniversary of the breakthrough discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun, 51 Pegasi B, is being celebrated this month with appropriate fanfare. But while exoplanet discovery remains active and planet hunters increasingly skilled and inventive, it is no longer the edgiest frontier.

Now, astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, planetary scientists, climatologists, heliophysicists and many more are streaming into a field made so enticing, so seemingly fertile by that discovery of the apparent ubiquitiousness of exoplanets.

The new goal: Identifying the most compelling mysteries of some of those distant planets, and gradually but inexorably finding ever-more inventive ways to solve them. This is a thrilling task on its own, but the potential prize makes it into quite an historic quest. Because that prize is the identification of extraterrestrial life.

The presence of life beyond Earth is something that humans have dreamed about forever – with a seemingly intuitive sense that there just had to be other planets out there, and that it made equal sense that some of them supported life. Hollywood was on to this long ago, but now we have the beginning technology and fast-growing knowledge to transform that intuitive sense of life out there into a working science.

The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Already the masses and orbits of several thousand exoplanets have been measured. Some planets have been identified as rocky like Earth (as opposed to gaseous like Jupiter.) Some have been found in what the field calls “habitable zones” – regions around distant suns where liquid water could plausibly run on a surface –as it does on Earth and once did on Mars. And some exoplanets have even been determined to have specific compounds – carbon dioxide, water, methane, even oxygen – in their atmospheres.

This and more is what I will be exploring, describing, hopefully bringing to life through an on-going examination of this emerging field of science and the inventive scientists working to understand planets and solar systems many light-years away. Theirs is a daunting task for sure, and progress may be halting. But many scientists are convinced that the goal is entirely within reach – that based on discoveries already made, the essential dynamics and characteristics of very different kinds of planets and solar systems are knowable. Thus the name of this offering: “Many Worlds.”

Artist rendering of early stages of planet formation in the swirl and debris of the disk of a new star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendering of early stages of planet formation in the swirl and debris of the disk of a new star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

I was first introduced to, and captivated by, this cosmic search in a class for space journalists taught by scientists including Sara Seager, a dynamic young professor of physics and planetary science at M.I.T., a subsequently-selected MacArthur “genius,” and a pioneer in the field not of discovering exoplanets, but of characterizing them and their atmospheres. And based on her theorizing and the observations of many others, she was convinced that this characterizing would lead to the discovery of very distant extraterrestrtial life, or at least to the discovery of planetary signatures that make the presence of life highly probable. Just this week, she predicted the discovery could take place within a decade.

It was in 2010 that she began her book “Exoplanet Atmospheres” with the statement: “A new era in planetary science is upon us.” I would take it further: A new era has arrived in the human drive to understand the universe and our place in it. Exoplanets and their solar systems are a magnet to young scientists, says Paul Hertz, the head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. Almost a third of the papers presented at astronomy conferences these days involve exoplanets, he said, and “it’s hard to find scientists in our field under thirty not working on exoplanets.” Go to a major geology conference, or a planetary science meeting, and much the same will be true.

And why not? I think of this moment as akin to the time in the 17th century when early microscopes revealed a universe of life never before seen. So many new questions to ask, so many discoveries to make, so much exciting and ultimately world-changing science ahead.

But the challenge of characterizing exoplanets and some day identifying signs of life does not lend itself to the kind of solitary or small group work that characterized microbiology (think the breakthrough NASA Kepler mission and the large team needed to make it reality and to analyze its results.) Not only does it require costly observatories and telescopes and spectrometers, but it also needs the expertise that scientists from different fields can bring to the task – rather like the effort to map the human genome.

That is the organizing logic of astrobiology – the more general hunt for life elsewhere in our solar system and far beyond, alongside the search for clues into how life may have started on our planet. NASA is eager to encourage that same spirit in the more specific but nonetheless equally sprawling exploration of exoplanets, their atmospheres, their physical makeup, their climates, their suns, their neighborhoods.

The Earth alongside “Super-Earth-” sized exoplanets identified with the Kepler Space Telescope. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech)
The Earth alongside “Super-Earth-” sized exoplanets identified with the Kepler Space Telescope. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech)

The result was the creation this summer of the the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), a group that will be led by 17 teams of scientists from around the country already working on some aspect of the rich exoplanet opportunity. The group was selected from teams that had applied for grants from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, an arm of its larger NASA Astrobiology Program, as well as other NASA programs in the Planetary Sciences, Astrophysics and Astronomy divisions.

Their mandate is to spark new approaches in the effort to understand exoplanets by identifying areas without consensus in the broader community, and then fostering collaborations here and abroad to address those issues. “Many Worlds” grew out of the NExSS initiative, and will chronicle and explain the efforts of some team members as they explore how exo-plants and exo-creatures might be detected; what can be learned from afar about the surfaces and cores of exoplanets and how both play into the possibility of faraway life; the presence and dynamics of exo-weather, what we can learn about exoplanets from our own planet and solar system, and so much more.

A few of the teams are small, but many are quite large, established and mature – perhaps most especially the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, and run by Victoria Meadows. Since 2001, the virtual lab has collaborated with researchers representing many disciplines, and from as many as 20 institutions, to understand what factors might best predict whether an exoplanet harbors life, using Earth as a model.

But just as I will be venturing beyond NExSS in my writing about this new era of exploration, so too will NExSS be open to the involvement of other scientists in the field. The original group has been tasked with identifying an agenda of sorts for NASA exoplanet missions and efforts ahead. But its aim is to be inclusive and its conclusions and recommendations will only be as useful and important as the exoplanet community writ large determines them to be.

The Carina Nebula, one of many regions where stars come together and planets later form made out of the surrounding dust, gas and later rock. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)
The Carina Nebula, one of many regions where stars come together and planets later form made out of the surrounding dust, gas and later rock. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)

This is a moment pregnant with promise. Systematically investigating exoplanets and their environs is an engine for discovery and a pathway into that largest question of whether or not we are alone in the universe.

Will scientists some day find worlds where donkeys talk and pigs can fly (as at least one “everything is possible” philosopher has posited)? Unlikely.

But just as microscopes and the scientists using them led to the science of microbiology and most of modern medicine, so too are our orbiting observatories, Earth-based telescopes and the scientists who analyze their results are regularly opening up a world of myriad and often surprising marvels.

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