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 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 NExSS Research Coordination Network 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.

The VPL team is a member of the NASA Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) which is a research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability.  The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life.  You can learn more about NExSS here  https://nexss.info/about/about-nexss

VPL Headlines

Science in Action: VPL Researchers Challenge the Discovery of Phosphine in the Venus Atmosphere

March 3, 2021

How to Weigh an Exoplanet: Ask the Astronomers Live!

February 19, 2021

VPL researcher Eric Agol and the project's Primary Investigator Victoria Meadows were recently interviewed by Phil LaMarr with the Universe Unplugged: Ask the Astronomers Live! series!

To Find an Extraterrestrial Civilization, Pollution Could Be the Solution

February 16, 2021

VPL Team members Ravi Kopparapu

Tyler Robinson Receives 2021 Cottrell Scholar Award

February 11, 2021

VPL researcher Tyler Robinson (Northern Arizona University) was recently

The 7 Rocky Planets Orbiting TRAPPIST-1 May be Made of Similar Stuff

January 22, 2021

Postdoctoral Researcher Position Open at University of Washington with VPL Researcher David Catling

January 20, 2021

Astronomers Document the Rise and Fall of a Rarely Observed Stellar Dance

January 19, 2021

VPL Team member, and recent graduate from the University of Washington Astrobiology Program, Diana Windemuth (PhD Astronomy & Astrobiology, 2020), is a co-author on a paper discussing the eclip

VPL Team Members part of Alternative Earths Team at UCR Awarded $4.6M for NASA ICAR Grant

January 7, 2021

If a Planet Has a Lot of Methane in its Atmosphere, Life is the Most Likely Cause

December 28, 2020

VPL graduate student Nick Wogan (University of Washington), researche

How the First Life on Earth Survived its Biggest Threat — Water

December 22, 2020

VPL Researcher, David Catling (University of Wash

Dr. Michael Wong Featured in NExSS Newsletter Interview

December 9, 2020

Dr. Michael Wong was interviewed by the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) Science Communication Working Group to be featured in the December issue of the NExSS newsletter.

Dr. Melissa Trainer Featured on Ask and Astrobiologist

November 25, 2020

VPL Scientist Dr. Melissa Trainer (NASA GSFC) was recently featured on the Ask an Astrobiologist program!