I had the good fortune several years ago to spend many hours in meetings of the science teams for the Curiosity rover, listening in on discussions about what new results beamed back from Mars might mean about the planet’s formation, it’s early history, how it gained and lost an atmosphere, whether it was a place where live could begin and survive. (A resounding ‘yes” to that last one.)
At the time, the lead of the science team was a geologist, Caltech’s John Grotzinger, and many people in the room had backgrounds in related fields like geochemistry and mineralogy, as well as climate modelers and specialists in atmospheres. There were also planetary scientists, astrobiologists and space engineers, of course, but the geosciences loomed large, as they have for all Mars landing missions.
Until very recently, exoplanet research did not have much of that kind interdisciplinary reach, and certainly has not included many scientists who focus on the likes of vulcanism, plate tectonics and the effects of stars on planets. Exoplanets has been largely the realm of astronomers and astrophysicists, with a sprinkling again of astrobiologists.
But as the field matures, as detecting exoplanets and inferring their orbits and size becomes an essential but by no means the sole focus of researchers, the range of scientific players in the room is starting to broaden. It’s a process still in its early stages, but exoplanet breakthroughs already achieved, and the many more predicted for the future, are making it essential to bring in some new kinds of expertise.
A meeting reflecting and encouraging this reality was held last week at Arizona State University and brought together several dozen specialists in the geo-sciences with a similar number specializing in astronomy and exoplanet detection. Sponsored by NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS), NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the National Science Foundation, it was a conscious effort to bring more scientists expert in the dynamics and evolution of our planet into the field of exoplanet study, while also introducing astronomers to the chemical and geological imperatives of the distant planets they are studying.… Read more