In a new effort NASA with NExSS, is bringing together experts spanning a variety of scientific fields for an unprecedented initiative dedicated to the search for life on exoplanets.
Above: The search for life beyond our solar system requires unprecedented cooperation across scientific disciplines. NASA’s NExSS collaboration includes those who study Earth as a life-bearing planet (lower right), those researching the diversity of solar system planets (left), and those on the new frontier, discovering worlds orbiting other stars in the galaxy (upper right). Credit NASA
The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or “NExSS”, hopes to better understand the various components of a planet outside our solar system, as well as how the planet’s stars and neighbor planets interact to support life.
Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, said:
“This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life. The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”
The study of exoplanets – planets around other stars – is a relatively new field. The discovery of the first exoplanet around a star like our sun was made in 1995. Since the launch of NASA’s Kepler space telescope six years ago, more than 1,000 exoplanets have been found, with thousands of additional candidates waiting to be confirmed. Scientists are developing ways to confirm the habitability of these worlds and search for biosignatures, or signs of life.
The key to this effort is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “system science” approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets.
NExSS will tap into the collective expertise from each of the science communities supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:
• Earth scientists develop a systems science approach by studying our home planet.
• Planetary scientists apply systems science to a wide variety of worlds within our solar system.
• Heliophysicists add another layer to this systems science approach, looking in detail at how the sun interacts with orbiting planets.
• Astrophysicists provide data on the exoplanets and host stars for the application of this systems science framework.
NExSS will bring together these prominent research communities in an unprecedented collaboration, to share their perspectives, research results, and approaches in the pursuit of one of humanity’s deepest questions: Are we alone?
The team will help classify the diversity of worlds being discovered, understand the potential habitability of these worlds, and develop tools and technologies needed in the search for life beyond Earth.
Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, Washington, notes:
“NExSS scientists will not only apply a systems science approach to existing exoplanet data, their work will provide a foundation for interpreting observations of exoplanets from future exoplanet missions such as TESS, JWST, and WFIRST.”
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is working toward a 2017 launch, with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled for launch in 2018. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope is currently being studied by NASA for a launch in the 2020s.