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

June 25, 2018

Will We Know Life When We See It?

"A group of leading researchers in astronomy, biology and geology have come together under NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS, to take stock of our knowledge in the search for life on distant planets and to lay the groundwork for moving the related sciences forward."Researchers in the Virtual Planetary Laboratory led and were co-authors on a series of papers published in the journal Astrobiology outlining the history — and suggesting the future — of the search for life on exoplanets. In this set of papers, researchers investigated the most promising signs of life (biosignatures), and considered how to interpret these signs if we were to detect them on an exoplanet. “For life to be detectable on a distant world it needs to strongly modify its planet in a way that we can detect,” said VPL Principal Investigator and UW astronomy professor Victoria Meadows


May 30, 2018

Joining the Microscope and the Telescope in the Search for Life Beyond Earth

NASA Ames Research Scientist Niki Parenteau and NASA Goddard Civil Servant Giada Arney were recently featured in a Many Worlds article. Parenteau and Arney explain the synergy between their fields of expertise. Specifically, they discuss how Arney's simulations of a hazy early Earth are being brought to life in Parenteau's lab at NASA Ames. This experiment is primarily testing if microbes on another world [exoplanet] could survive a UV bombardment in the presence of haze. "The Parenteau - Arney collaboration is being funded through a NAI grant to the University of Washington's famously-interdisciplinary Virtual Planetary Laboratory."


May 4, 2018

VPL Principal Investigator Victoria Meadows Receives the Drake Award

The SETI Institute’s prestigious award is named for Dr. Frank Drake, the pioneering astronomer who founded the modern field of experimental searches for intelligent civilizations among the stars, and the first President of the SETI Institute’s Board of Trustees. He is also the creator of the Drake Equation, acknowledged by many to be a roadmap for astrobiology, or the study of life in the Universe. Previous winners of the Drake Award include Charles Townes, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on developing masers and lasers, and William Borucki, the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Kepler mission, which has discovered thousands of exoplanets, including many with the possibility of sustaining life. Meadows will be the first woman to receive the Drake Award.