Despite its name, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) has in recent years concentrated on planet Earth–mainly, its widely used computer models used by scientists around the world to measure and predict the impact of greenhouse gases on climate. This week NASA announced that the Earth Institute-affiliated center will also play a leading role in a new initiative to search for life on other planets.
NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS) will bring together researchers from many institutions to study exoplanets–that is, planets beyond our solar system–with the greatest apparent potential for habitability. The initiative will be led by principal investigator Anthony del Genio of GISS, Columbia University astrophysicist Caleb Scharf and 25 other researchers.
“Our overall guiding question for the project is, ‘What is the history of planetary surface habitability in the solar system, and what does this tell us about the potential habitability of planets orbiting other stars?” said del Genio.
At the heart of the project, researchers will adapt GISS’s global climate model for Earth, and use it to simulate conditions on other planets. This team will use the model to explore how habitable some planets in our own solar system may have been at different points in their past. For exoplanets, the model will be combined with other planetary characteristics–atmospheric composition, size, gravity, rotation, orbit and the star that the planet is orbiting–to zero in on those that may be most conducive to life.
Researchers at GISS will also tie their simulations to data from current NASA missions, including the Mars Curiosity rover, and the space-based Kepler telescope, which is aimed at exoplanets. The results will be incorporated into the design of future planetary rovers and space-based telescopes.
The study of exoplanets is a new field–the first one orbiting a star like our sun was discovered in 1995–and is rapidly developing. Since the launch of the Kepler telescope six years ago, more than 1,000 exoplanets have been spotted, and thousands of additional candidates are awaiting confirmation.
The team will include scientists from other parts of NASA, and a dozen universities and other institutions across the nation.
“This research will advance significantly our ability to simulate these worlds in detail, using state-of-the-art tools maintained by the Earth sciences community,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman, the lead scientist for the project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.