NASA has taken a major initiative to search for alien life in the universe.
The U.S. space agency is setting up a research team from various scientific fields and some of America’s leading universities and research institutes to bolster the ongoing search for life outside our solar system.
The program – called Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) – will focus on examining more than 1,000 planets outside our solar system for possible signs of life. Most of these exoplanets, as they are commonly known, were discovered with the help of NASA’s Kepler space telescope and have piqued the collective curiosities of scientists ever since.
What distinguishes this program from previous efforts is that it brings together earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists, and astrophysicists.
“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,” Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science, said in a statement.
The team will be comprised of scientists from ten universities including Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, Arizona State, Yale, and Penn State in addition to two research institutes and three organizations within NASA: the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Earth climate experts from the GISS will create a model of the Earth’s climate and use it to look for other planets in space that have a similar climate.
“We have to start thinking about these things as more than planetary objects,” Anthony Del Genio, a climate modeler at the GISS said in an interview. “All of a sudden, this has become a topic not just for astronomers, but for planetary scientists and now climate scientists.”
Another team, led by Steve Desch of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, will study chemicals on other planets – such as oxygen and methane – to see if they were produced by biological processes.
“The excitement is palpable,” said Desch. “We are really poised to answer the question of life elsewhere.”
“We really have to look for a chemical bio signature because we’re never going to be able to measure little green men running around on the surface of a planet,” ASU’s Tom Zega explained.
The study of exoplanets became a part of astrophysics relatively recently. The first exoplanet (51 Pegasi b) around a Sun-like star was discovered in 1995.
More than a thousand such planets have been discovered since Kepler’s launch in 2009. The scientific community is working on developing ways to confirm the habitability of these planets. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well,” said Green.
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