Research Areas

The VPL research team explores the evolution and limits of planetary habitability by combining laboratory, field, and observational data with state-of-the-art models in radiative transfer, climate, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and biology. By modeling a variety of self-consistent planetary environments, we can better determine what it takes to recognize a habitable world, and how we can discriminate between planets with and without life.

To achieve this, our research is organized into five interdisciplinary and interrelated tasks. The first four tasks (A, B, C, and D) generate plausible planetary environments and spectra, which are then used as input for the fifth task (E), which explores the remote-sensing detectability of signs of habitability and life.  The five tasks are described below.  For more detailed information on the interests of individual researchers within the VPL community, visit our directory.

An overview of VPL's relevance to NASA missions can be found here.

Task A:  The Earth as an Extrasolar Planet

Earth will always be our best-studied example of a habitable world. By simulating the Earth’s appearance to a distant observer, our 3-D spectral Earth model can help us predict the nature and detectability of signs of habitability in data-limited exoplanet observations.  MORE >

Task B:  The Earth Through Time

The history of the Earth provides us with a diversity of environments and ecosystems that are very different from modern-day Earth’s. By gaining insight into ancient habitability, we can add to the list of biosignatures we know how to recognize.  MORE >

Task C: The Habitable Planet

There are many different factors that may determine whether a planet is habitable or not. By understanding the interactions and characteristics of the galactic, stellar, and planetary environments in which life arises, we can better prioritize follow-up study for newly discovered planets. MORE >

Task D: The Living Planet

Life on extrasolar planets may create biosignatures very different from those found on Earth. By studying how life interacts and co-evolves with its environment—and particularly how the stellar environment may affect photosynthesis—we can identify potential new target biosignatures.  MORE >

Task E: The Observer

As more potentially habitable planets are discovered, we will need to ensure that we can accurately characterize them. By exploring new techniques to obtain planetary masses from existing data, and by performing retrievals on simulated spectra, we can learn how to more precisely determine a planet’s composition, and thus, its potential for life. MORE >

In addition to the descriptions on this website, detailed information on VPL research can be found in our NASA Astrobiology Institute Annual Reports on the NAI's VPL Team page.




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