Cuatro Ciénegas, Mexico, a living laboratory and a proxy for early Earth, shows living stromatolites in a pristine river system, targets of investigation for the VPL team to better understand microbial evolution and adaptive processes.
VPL modeling results predict that a planet's gravitational interaction with the parent star can create extreme volcanism and vaporize oceans
VPL researchers work to understand the co-evolution of photosynthesis with the planetary environment on planets that orbit stars very different to our Sun.

Welcome to the Virtual Planetary Laboratory

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) Virtual Planetary Laboratory's research is driven by a single scientific question: “How would we determine if an extrasolar planet were able to support life or had life on it already?” To answer this, the VPL develops and combines scientific models from many disciplines to constrain habitability for newly discovered worlds, like those found by NASA’s Kepler mission. We explore the evolution and limits of terrestrial planet habitability via a planet’s interaction with its parent star and planetary system environment. We work to identify life’s observable impact on a planetary environment for different metabolisms, planetary compositions, and host stars.  We calculate the likely detectability of these planetary characteristics in photometry and spectra to be returned by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and future mission concepts, such as LUVOIR and HabEx.

To address our key scientific question, we refine and combine existing VPL planetary, astronomical, and ecosystem models to derive a comprehensive, interdisciplinary characterization of a given planetary environment and its likely history. We use observations, laboratory, and fieldwork from the astronomical, Earth observing, planetary and biological sciences as input to these models. Our effort benefits astrobiology and the NAI with a proven, productive, interdisciplinary science team whose research spans the distribution of habitable worlds, the co-evolution of life with its environment, and the recognition of signatures of life on other worlds. Our research personnel provide both key scientific and technical leadership for current and future NASA missions and engage the public in the excitement of NASA's planet detection and characterization efforts.
 

VPL Headlines

06/22/2016

Jacob Haqq-Misra joins Far Infrared Surveyor team

VPL member Jacob Haqq-Misra has recently joined the science and technology definition team (STDT) for the Far Infrared Surveyor mission concept being studied by NASA to help identify exoplanet science goals. Congratulations Jacob! MORE>

06/22/2016

VPL members comment on ancient air caught by shooting stars

A News & Views article in Nature by VPL members Kevin Zahnle and Roger Buick discusses a recent paper arguing that ashes of ancient meteors recovered in a 2.7-billion-year-old lake bed imply that Earth's upper atmosphere was rich in oxygen at a time when all other evidence implies the atmosphere was oxygen-free MORE>

06/22/2016

"Limit Cycles" can reduce the width of the habitable zone

A recent paper by VPL members Jacob Haqq-Misra, Ravi Kopparapu, Natasha Batalha, Chester "Sonny" Harman, and Jim Kasting argues that terrestrial planets can maintain above-freezing conditions through cycling of CO2 in the atmosphere and crust, and recent calculations have suggested that planets near the outer edge of the habitable zone can oscillate between snowball states and warm states.  Modeling work by these authors suggests that limit cycles such as this can occur, but previous calculations may have over-estimated their importance. Limit cycles can occur for planets orbiting sun-like stars for planets with CO2 outgassing rates similar to modern Earth, but limit cycling does not occur on planets orbiting dimmer stars. This work suggests that parent star type, volcanic activity, and seafloor weathering are important factors to consider for planetary habitability. MORE>

06/22/2016

The outer edge of the habitable zone is affected by limits on CO2 outgassing rates

In this recent paper by VPL member Dr. Dorian Abbot, simple equations are used to estimate the climate and CO2 budget of a planet near the outer edge of the habitable zone. Planets near the outer edge of the habitable zone may not be able to stay warm if CO2 outgassing rates are insufficient to maintain a large amount of atmospheric CO2 against removal processes by silicate weathering. This work derives an analytical limit to the outer edge of the habitable zone based on these processes and shows that climate cycles between snowball and warm states are possible beyond the outer edge if the weathering rate in the snowball state is smaller than the CO2 outgassing rates. MORE>

06/22/2016

Congratulations to recent VPL NPPs!

Three VPL students have recently been awarded fellowships by the NASA Postdoctoral Program! Peter Gao and Giada Arney were awarded NPPs to work at NASA Ames and NASA Goddard, respectively. Eddie Schwieterman has been awarded a NAI NPP to work with the NAI team at UC Riverside. Congratulations to all!  MORE>

06/06/2016

PNAS Habitable Zone feature includes VPL scientists

Understanding planetary habitability is important for characterizing exoplanets and selecting targets for future exoplant observing missions. One of the key issues relevant to planetary habitability is the concept of the "habitable zone." A recent feature in PNAS on the habitable zone features commentary by VPL scientists Shawn Domagal-Goldman, Ravi Kopparapu, Jim Kasting, and Ray Pierrehumbert. Also featured is a figure showing the Habitable Zone by VPL grad student Sonny Harman. MORE>

05/12/2016

Congratulations to Shawn Domagal-Goldman!

VPL member Shawn Domagal-Goldman at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has been honored with the Agency Early Career Achievement Medal! Congratulations, Shawn! MORE>

05/12/2016

Early earth's air pressure was less than half of today's

A new study led by VPL researcher Sanjoy Som together with VPL members Roger Buick and David Catling and others implies that early Earth's atmospheric pressure 2.7 billion years ago was less than half of modern day. The researchers used gas bubbles trapped in ancient sea-level lava flows as a "paleobarometer". The sizes of the bubbles record the pressure of the atmosphere bearing down on the cooling lava billions of years ago. This low atmospheric pressure suggests that early microbes may have been consuming atmospheric nitrogen, but there was not an efficient process to release that consumed nitrogen back to the atmosphere like there is today. MORE>

04/22/2016

Congratulations to Rory Barnes!

Rory Barnes of the UW astronomy department has been promoted to an Assistant Professor in astrobiology! Congratulations Rory! MORE>

03/31/2016

Congratulations to new members of NASA STDTs!

NASA has convened Science and Technology Definitions Teams (STDTs) to study large telescope concepts for future direct imaging of exoplanets. Congratulations to Vikki Meadows, Tyler Robinson, and Shawn Domagal-Goldman who have been seletected as members of these teams! Vikki will be a member of the LUVIOR team, and Shawn will be the LUVIOR Deputy Study Scientist. Shawn is also a member of the HabEx STDT, as is Ty Robinson. Congratulations to all!  MORE>

03/31/2016

Dry planets help weed out false positive biosignatures

Terrestrial planets orbiting in the habitable zones of low mass stars may be extremely dry due to water loss from exposure to high energy UV radiation during their host stars' early evolution. VPL researchers Peter Gao, Tyler Robinson, Yuk Yung, and collaborators show that if such a planet outgassed a secondary atmosphere composed primarily of CO2, UV radiation can break up the CO2 molecules and produce large amounts of abiotic O2 and O3. O2 produced by this mechanism can reach up to 20% of the atmosphere if large amounts of water are lost. However, this should not present a great challenge for deciphering between biological and abiotic oxygen in an exoplanet atmosphere: the researchers show that the lack of water in the reflectance and emission spectra of these worlds clearly indicate that the oxygen signals are likely abiotic in nature.    MORE>