As extrasolar planet discoveries from both ground-based and space-based telescopes accelerate, planets closer in size to the Earth are being found at distances from their parent star that might allow liquid water, and life, on their surfaces.
The NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory was founded in 2001 and focuses on answering the scientific question “If we were to find such a planet, how would we use observations and modeling studies to determine if that planet was able to support life, or had life on it?”
To address this question, the VPL has developed a “tool kit” of innovative computer models to simulate and better understand the environments and spectra of extrasolar planets. The VPL tool kit allows an interdisciplinary, non-Earth-centric assessment of the interactions between a planet, its star and its planetary system that can affect the planet’s “habitability”, its ability to support life. It also allows us to explore the interactions between life, its planetary environment and the parent star to identify new “biosignatures”, detectable ways in which life can modify its planetary environment on a global scale.
The VPL Team
Based at the University of Washington, the highly interdisciplinary VPL team comprises over 50 researchers at 20 different institutions. The team includes astronomers, atmospheric chemists, spectroscopists, geochemists, geophysicists, climatologists, molecular evolutionary biologists, and many other types of scientists. Our team members interact with each other across discipline boundaries and over geographical distance to understand the limits and maintenance of planetary habitability, and to explore and identify new biosignatures. MORE >
To provide a systematic study of planetary habitability and biosignatures, the research of the VPL is divided into five major areas which include: understanding the detectability of signs of habitability and life for the modern and ancient Earth, exploring the limits of planetary habitability, understanding the limits of photosynthesis and the effects of life on a planetary environment, and the detectability for planned NASA missions of habitability and life for different types of planets. VPL databases for molecular, stellar, planetary and (coming soon!) photosynthetic pigment spectra are available for download, and some VPL models are also available here. MORE >
Training the Next Generation of Astrobiologists
The Virtual Planetary Laboratory provides ongoing research, training, and professional development opportunities for students and early-career scientists. Many members of the VPL Research Team supervise Postdoctoral Research Fellows/Associates as well as multiple students at the graduate and undergraduate level. These young scientists are welcomed and mentored in all aspects of VPL's work. Furthermore, as it is headquarted at the University of Washington, VPL is deeply connected with the University of Washington’s Astrobiology community, including the UW Astrobiology Program.
Education & Public Outreach
The VPL Team is dedicated to sharing the advances and excitement of astrobiology with a broader audience. Our scientists participate in EPO activities at their host institutions, and work with EPO professionals to develop joint activities and products to educate and inspire. MORE >