The search for life beyond our solar system is about to get a boost of brain power.
This week NASA convened the first meeting of a team of scientists who will work collectively to determine the best way to look for signs of life around other stars.
The new group is known as the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), and its official goal is “to provide a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” according to Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA.
The team is made of researchers from about 20 different fields including Earth scientists, planetary scientists, astrophysicists and heliophysicists. Everyone involved has been working in their own field to figure out how to best understand how habitable planets form, what makes them habitable, and how we might detect life on a distant world, but this week marked the first time they all gathered in one room to meet and talk.
“This combination of knowledge will give us a new perspective on the steps it will take to look for and find life in our universe,” said one of the group’s leaders, Dawn Gelino of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
NASA officials have made it clear that finding life beyond our planet is one of the space agency’s top priorities. At a news conference earlier this month, NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan said she thinks researchers will discover the first signs of extraterrestrial life in 10 years, and definitive evidence of that life in 10 to 20 years.
Jeffery Newmark, interim director of heliophysics at the agency put it this way: “It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when."
NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope was launched in 2009 and has already found more than 1,000 exoplanets orbiting around distant stars. Thousands more planet candidates are still waiting to be confirmed.
But now that scientists know for certain that other planets orbit their own suns, the next step is to determine which of those planets might harbor life, and how we might be able to tell.
“The big picture is that we don’t know what exoplanets are going to look like,” said Neal Turner of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “A lot of them are very strange -- somewhere between the size of Earth and Neptune. We have nothing that looks like that in the solar system.”
He explained that part of the group’s job will be to offer NASA suggestions on what types of telescopes will be needed to look for life in the future and what molecules they should be looking for in the planets’ atmospheres.
“The goal is to find life, but life is just a thin skin on the surface of the earth,” Turner said. “What we are trying to do is brainstorm and combine our expertise to see in what areas we can make a bit of progress.”