-- The search for planets that can support life is taking place at UC
Santa Cruz, in Jonathan Fortney's astronomy and astrophyics lab.
Fortney, an associate professor, has been named to a 15-member
NASA team, the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS). The team will
look at how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, a planet's
interior and its host star, to understand how to find signs of life.
Scientists from 10 universities, three NASA centers and two research institutes were selected for the team.
At UCSC, Fortney will examine how light from a planet's atmosphere
can give clues about the atmosphere's temperature and molecular makeup.
Today's statistical tools allow scientists to understand what molecules
surround brown dwarfs and giant planets, which are brighter and hotter
than small planets similar to Earth.
"In the future, when we obtain spectra of Earth-like planets
around other stars, we'll want to know if we can see things like methane
and oxygen in their atmospheres, and we'll want to quantify the amounts
of those different gases," he said.
Each team member will contribute his or her expertise, to solve
the eternal question: Are we alone? Heliophysicists will look at how the
sun interacts with its orbiting planets. Astrophysicists will study
exoplanets, or planets around other stars. Planetary scientists will
contribute their knowledge from our solar system.
The team brings together research communities often unaware of
work outside their own disciplines. The collaboration will help classify
the discoveries of new worlds and understand if they can support life.