Forget Earth’s mightiest heroes, NASA is launching an initiative that brings together some of Earth’s most brilliant scientists. Instead of “The Avengers”, the agency has named its latest initiative “Nexus for Exoplanet System Science” and its goal is not to defend our planet from alien threats, but rather to comb the universe in search of alien life. NExSS for short, is a new and ambitious project that aims to bring together experts from a variety of scientific fields with the goal of finally answering that all too important question: “are we alone?” Earlier this month, NASA did promise that they will be able to provide solid evidence for the existence of alien life within a decade or two and this ‘scientists assemble’ type of initiative is further proof that the agency wasn’t kidding around when that statement was made.
The very first order of business for NExSS will be to analyze a number of known exoplanets and their parent stars. An exoplanet is any planet that orbits a star other than our own Sun, so in other words, a planet that’s located outside our Solar System. As you might imagine, NASA is not interested in just any exoplanets and will be mainly focusing on the ones that look like they could sustain alien life forms. “This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” says Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Science. He also adds that “the hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”
Earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists, and astrophysicists will all be working together on this and they will have the very difficult task of figuring if alien life is truly out there or not. NASA’s newest initiative will pave the way for advanced science instruments that can further help interpret the initial observations of NExSS, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope, all of which are scheduled to launch in the coming years. We might not be able to physically reach any exoplanets with our current technology, but all these tools should indeed allow NASA to give us a final answer to the question “are we alone in the universe?” within two decades, just like they promised.
NExSS will be lead by Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Dawn Gelino from the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute, and Anthony del Genio of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In addition, the scientists will also be working closely together with experts from two other research institutes, as well as 10 renowned universities. Specifically: Stanford University, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Hampton University, University of Wyoming, Penn State University, University of Maryland, Yale University, University of Nebraska-Kearney, and the University of California. Helping them out will be members from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA’s Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and of course, the SETI Institute.