NASA gathers experts to search for life beyond the solar system
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NASA gathers experts to search for life beyond the solar system

NASA is bringing together experts from all scientific fields in an initiative dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system.  

“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,” says Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

The first exoplanet around a star like our sun was only discovered in 1995, but Kepler space telescope, launched six years ago, has identified more than 1,000.

The new initiative – the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or “NExSS” – hopes to better understand the various components of an exoplanet, as well as how the planet stars and neighbour planets interact to support life.

NExSS will tap into the collective expertise from each of the science communities supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:
Earth scientists develop a systems science approach by studying our home planet.
Planetary scientists apply systems science to a wide variety of worlds within our solar system.
Heliophysicists add another layer to this systems science approach, looking in detail at how the Sun interacts with orbiting planets.
Astrophysicists provide data on the exoplanets and host stars for the application of this systems science framework.

Meanwhile, there’s bad news for those who hoped the Tau Ceti system could be home to an alternate Earth. It seems not.

Tau Ceti is a star in the constellation Cetus that is spectrally similar to the Sun. It is also the second closest star to the Sun, which has made it a popular setting for science fiction writers since at least 1949 when L. Sprague de Camp wrote The Queen of Zamba.  

Dr. Durand Durand – inventor of the Positronic Ray in the 1968 movie Barbarella – came from a planet in the Tau Ceti system and planets from there feature in several Star Trek episodes as well as the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But, as phys.org reports, Arizona State University researchers say it is looking less probable that life like ours will be found there.

Since December 2012 Tau Ceti has become even more appealing, thanks to evidence of possibly five planets orbiting it, with two of these – Tau Ceti e and f – potentially residing in the habitable zone.
Using the chemical composition of Tau Ceti, the ASU team modeled the star’s evolution and calculated its habitable zone. Although their data confirms that two planets (e and f) may be in the habitable zone it doesn’t mean life flourishes or even exists there.
“Planet e is in the habitable zone only if we make very generous assumptions. Planet f initially looks more promising, but modeling the evolution of the star makes it seem probable that it has only moved into the habitable zone recently as Tau Ceti has gotten more luminous over the course of its life,” explains astrophysicist Michael Pagano.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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