NASA News & Feature Releases

NASA GISS to Help Lead Search For Habitable Exoplanets

NASA announced this week the creation of the Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS) network that will study planets beyond our solar system for habitability and other features tapping the expertise of researchers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), Goddard Space Flight Center and other locations.

The goal is to take a comprehensive look at known exoplanets and lay the groundwork for interpretation of data from future missions. This includes studies on how chemicals critical to habitability are delivered to planets, how these chemicals are processed by planetary interiors, how the chemicals are released into a planetary atmosphere and escape, how the chemicals combine with the physical and astronomical properties of a planet and the star it orbits to produce a habitable climate, and what we can learn about these processes based on current and future observations.

Graphic of exoplanet simulation data

Left to right: Mars surface air temperatures; hypothetical tidally locked planet; Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth cloud cover; Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth surface wind speed and directions. (Credits: NASA GISS and Columbia University)

One team will focus on habitability from a more local perspective by examining the climates of solar system rocky planets through time. That foundation will help inform the detection and characterization of habitable exoplanets in the future. The team is a collaborative effort, led by principal investigator Tony Del Genio of NASA GISS, Shawn Domagal-Goldman of Goddard, Caleb Scharf of Columbia University, 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.

The heart of the project is the adaptation of the GISS Earth global climate model to simulate other planets, informed by simulations of the orbit histories of the planets to be calculated at Columbia. The model will be used to explore questions about how habitable several planets in our solar system were at different points in their distant past.

"We also plan to use the model to simulate the climates of a wide variety of possible exoplanets to determine which combinations of planetary and planetary system characteristics — atmospheric composition, size, gravity, rotation, orbit, star - are most likely to produce a habitable climate," Del Genio said.

Team members at Goddard will tie the simulations to data from current NASA missions including the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity rover and Kepler space observatory, and incorporate model results into the design of possible future Mars rovers and space-based exoplanet telescopes.

"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 Goddard lead. "It also will help validate those models by applying them to other solar system planets."

Additional teams were chosen from the Planetary Science Division portion of the Exoplanets Research Program. One of them is a team from the University of Maryland and Goddard, led by Wade Henning, which will study tidal dynamics and orbital evolution of terrestrial exoplanets. The NExSS network will bring together researchers from different research communities to share their perspectives, research results and approaches. This unprecedented collaboration will help classify the diversity of worlds being discovered, understand the potential habitability of these worlds, and inform the development of tools and technologies needed in the search for life beyond Earth.

NASA GISS is a laboratory in the Earth Sciences Division of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and is affiliated with the Earth Institute and School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University in New York.

For more information on NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program, visit: science.nasa.gov/about-us/smd-programs/ExEP.

For more information about the GISS Astrobiology group, visit: www.giss.nasa.gov/projects/astrobio/.

Related Links

NASA News: NASA's NExSS Coalition to Lead Search for Life on Distant Worlds

GISS Feature: NASA's Exoplanet Nexus — 1. A History in Climate Studies

GISS Feature: NASA's Exoplanet Nexus — 2. Looking to the Stars

Media Contact

Leslie McCarthy, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, N.Y., 212-678-5507, leslie.m.mccarthy@nasa.gov

This article was originally prepared as NASA GSFC release 15-023.

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