STScI Embraces Astrobiology and Exoplanets: The Institute for Planets and Life

Dániel Apai, apai@stsci.edu, and Jocelyn DiRuggiero, jdiruggiero@jhu.edu

The Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes were never designed to directly study exoplanets, yet they paved our way toward the detailed characterization of the atmospheres of hot jupiters. By contrast, the James Webb Space Telescope is being built and optimized in part to study exoplanets. In fact, its unique stability and sensitivity may help Webb become the first telescope to search for signs of biological activity around other stars.

But do we know what to look for, and how to find it?

Simply interpreting observations of super-Earth atmospheres calls for expertise in geophysics and atmospheric physics. Planning and optimizing a search for life around other stars goes beyond this, and requires a broader set of expertise, including biology.

Following a series of successful projects, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) teamed up with earth and planetary scientists and biologists from the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) to establish the Institute for Planets & Life (IPL) to prepare for the search for life. The objectives of IPL are to spark interdisciplinary discussions in the astrobiology community at the STScI, JHU, Applied Physics Laboratory, and Goddard Space Flight Center, and to facilitate the development of large-scale, multidisciplinary projects aimed at answering major questions about the origin and evolution of life, and the search for life in the universe.

Background

With funding from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the STScI’s Director’s Discretionary Funds and JHU, the IPL group launched an astrobiology lecture series in 2009, which proved to be very popular (the video recording of the talks are accessible from the IPL website). Members of the group also organized an interdisciplinary workshop on exploring the origins of water and other volatiles on Earth and other rocky planets.

In Fall 2010, the IPL group introduced astrobiology to the JHU curriculum, with the first course designed for advanced undergraduate and graduate students. IPL is also participating in public outreach by supporting an astrobiology exhibit for the Maryland Science Center. The expanding flurry of activities has also motivated the formation of a strong, student-organized astrobiology club.

IPL’s long-term goal is to inform the search for habitable planets by exploring the limits of life on Earth, by better understanding the planetary conditions required for life, and by searching for and characterizing exoplanets. IPL provides coordination and support for astrobiology and exoplanet-related research in the STScI’s extended community. Ultimately, IPL helps to prepare the astronomical community for using Webb for some of the most ambitious measurements in the history—the search for life beyond the Solar System.

The IPL website is here.