NASA teams scientific experts to find life on exoplanets

NASA teams 16 scientific outfits with the goal of finding signatures of life

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As the amount of newly discovers planets and systems outside our solar systems grows, NASA is assembling a virtual team of scientific experts to search for signs of life.

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The program, Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) will cull the collective expertise from each of NASA’s science communities including Earth, Planetary, Heliophysicists, Astrophysicists and key universities to better analyze all manner of exoplanets, as well as how the planet stars and neighbor planets interact to support life, the space agency stated.

The need is obvious: Since the launch of NASA’s Kepler space telescope six years ago, more than 1,800 exoplanets have been confirmed. There are thousands more exoplanet candidates waiting for confirmation, the space agency said.

“With our current technologies, we have primarily measured the physical and astronomical properties of exoplanets -- such as their masses or sizes, and their orbital properties,” said Natalie Batalha, NASA’s Kepler mission scientist and co-director of NExSS at NASA in a statement.

Scientists are developing ways to confirm the habitability of these worlds and search for biosignatures, or signs of life, NASA said. And key to this effort is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “system science” approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets.

“In the field of exoplanets, finding exoplanets that could host life is no longer the goal. The quest is to find the signatures of life,” said Steve Desch, an associate professor in the Arizona State School of Earth and Space Exploration in a statement. “To do that we need to know for which types of exoplanets are oxygen and methane biosignatures, as opposed to natural geochemical outcomes.

The team will help classify the diversity of worlds being discovered, understand the potential habitability of these worlds, and develop tools and technologies needed in the search for life in space.

NExSS will be led by scientists from the NASA Ames Research Center, the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Other members include Yale, Penn State, Berkeley/Stanford University, Arizona State, University of Washington.

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