The search for life beyond our own solar system has taken a major step forward with a new interdisciplinary research coalition devoted to the search for life in the cosmos.
Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) will be made up of research teams from several NASA facilities, 10 U.S. universities and two research institutions, according to a recent NASA announcement.
Research teams were picked from proposals submitted to the four various divisions that make-up the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate.
NExSS experts will search for life in the cosmos by studying various aspects of a extra solar planet or exoplanet, as well as how the planet’s star and neighboring worlds all act together to support life.
NASA said NExSS researchers will be better equipped to look for life on extrasolar planets if they gain a better understanding of how biology interacts with various components of an exoplanet, such as its interior, atmosphere, geology and ocean, and how its host star affects these interactions.
“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,” said Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science in a press release.
He said “the hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”
As more and more planets are found in solar systems beyond our own, researchers have been working on scientific methods that would not only allow them to confirm whether the alien planets are suitable to host life, but also help them look for specific biosignatures that point to the presence of life on these planets.
Experts from the four divisions of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate will provide NExSS with guidance and knowledge in the areas of Earth Science, Planetary Science, Helieophysics and Astrophysics. And NExSS team members will study and classify newly discovered exoplanets, determine if they are possibly habitable, and develop the needed tools and technologies to find life beyond our own planet.
“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,” noted Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters, Washington.
The TESS or Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite mission is scheduled for a 2017 launch date. The JWST or James Webb Space Telescope – Hubble’s replacement – is set to be launched in 2018. And NASA is now studying the WFIRST or Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope which they hope to launch sometime in the 2020s.
The first extrasolar planet was discovered only 20 years ago when 51 Pegasi b was found orbiting 51Pegasi, a main sequence star much like our own Sun, some 50 light years away.
After NASA’s Kepler space telescope went into operation in May 2009, scientists were able to confirm the existence of more than 1,800 exoplanets.
Thousands more await confirmation.