New NASA coalition dedicated to search for alien life

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Experts hunting for extraterrestrial life on extrasolar planets and elsewhere in the solar system are joining forces in what NASA is calling “an unprecedented initiative dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system,” the US space agency announced Monday.

The new Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) initiative will bring together scientists from a wide variety of different fields to better understand the components of exoplanets, as well as how planets, stars and neighboring worlds interact in order to support biological life.

Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, explained that this new “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.”

Using “system science” to find life on other planets

It was only 20 years ago that the first exoplanet was discovered, and while the study of these worlds is relatively new, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has discovered more than 1,000 since launching six years ago. Scientists have been working on ways to determine if these planets are habitable, and to search for biosignatures indicative of the presence of life.

Understanding how biology interacts with a planet’s atmosphere, geology, oceans and interior, and how each of those interactions are affected by the host star, are vital to this effort, the agency explained. This “system science” approach is at the core of the NExSS effort, which will bring together earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists and astrophysicists to combine their efforts and share their research results in the hunt for alien life.

Earth scientists will develop a systems science approach by studying our home planet, while planetary scientists will apply systems science to a wide variety of worlds found within our solar system, NASA said. Heliophysicists plan to analyze how the Sun interacts with planets in orbit around it, while astrophysicists will contribute data on exoplanets and their host stars.

Dr. Paul Hertz, Director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA said that the work of the NExSS scientists will lay the groundwork for future exoplanet missions such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is scheduled to launch in 2017; the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to launch in 2018; and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope, which is currently being studied by NASA and could launch in the 2020’s.

Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Dawn Gelino with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute (NExScI) and Anthony del Genio of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies will lead the NExSS initiative, the agency noted. Other members of the team will include representatives from 10 different universities and two research centers, including the University of Arizona, Penn State University and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

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