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


November 14, 2018

VPL Continues to Search for Life in the Great Beyond with the support of a NASA NExSS Grant

The College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington covered a story on Searching for Life in the Great Beyond . In the interview, Meadows highlights how team members are working towards answering the question of: Are We Alone? "At VPL we use simulators with different capabilities to figure out what instrument would work best to make the sort of observations we want to make. We share this information with NASA, because NASA wants to know how it can use its assets to best search for life in the Universe.” VPL is so instrumental in identifying the needs of future space technology that NASA recently awarded it a grant totaling $11 million over the next five years.

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November 1, 2018

Modeled Climates and Spectra for Possible Evolved Climates for the Seven-Planet TRAPPIST-1 System

The TRAPPIST-1 system hosts seven terrestrial-sized planets, in and around the habitable zone of their small M dwarf host star. Since M dwarf stars exhibit a long superluminous pre-main-sequence phase during which its planets likely experience extreme volatile loss, the TRAPPIST-1 planets may have highly evolved, possibly uninhabitable atmospheres. Resultant possible atmospheres may be post runaway atmospheres like Venus, dominated by CO2, or be dominated by O2 as a result of severe water loss. These atmospheres exhibit spectroscopic signals in transit that may be observable by the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. For more, read this new paper led by Andrew Lincowski, Ph.D. Candidate in Astronomy and Astrobiology.

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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

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