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UW Hosts Conference that Explores Exoplanets

November 14, 2017
poster for event
“Habitable Worlds 2017: A System Science Workshop” takes place this week at the UW Conference Center and the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center. Nearly 150 scientists from around the U.S. are focusing on the exploration of potential habitable exoplanets. (Hannah Jang-Condell Photo)

A group of approximately 150 scientists who look to the sky for potential habitable exoplanets has converged on the University of Wyoming this week.

Through the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability, UW is hosting “Habitable Worlds 2017: A Sytem Science Workshop” at the UW Conference Center and the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center.

The conference, which began Nov. 13, spans four and a half days, with plenary talks in the mornings, afternoon panel sessions and two evening poster sessions. Breakout groups will provide a brief summary of their discussions on the last day of the workshop. There also is a banquet.

photos of John Grunsfeld, Douglas Hudgins, Alan Stern and Mary Voytek

Notable scientists in attendance include Alan Stern, principal investigator of New Horizons, NASA’s historic mission to explore the Pluto system and the Kuiper Belt; John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as an astronaut who flew on several missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope; Douglas Hudgins, an exoplanet program scientist for NASA; and Mary Voytek, a NASA senior scientist for astrobiology.

“The intent of the workshop is to bring together scientists across multiple disciplines to attack the question of how to find habitable planets around other stars,” says Hannah Jang-Condell, a UW associate professor of astronomy, who organized the conference.

Following the goals of NExSS to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology and climate interact to create conditions for life, and corresponding biosignature detection, the workshop addresses the following questions:

-- What does it mean to be habitable?

-- What conditions are needed for habitability, and how do those conditions arise?

-- What are the indicators of these conditions and their histories?

-- How can we observe these indicators?

The field of exoplanets -- 3,550 have been identified, according to the NASA exoplanet archive -- is currently at the cusp of a watershed moment in finding life on other worlds. Propelled by the discoveries of habitable-zone terrestrial planets in both ground and space-based surveys -- and the potential for future telescopes to characterize the atmospheres of some of these rocky planets -- preparation for such a singular moment needs a diverse community, including Earth scientists, heliophysicists, planetary scientists and astrophysicists, according to the conference website.

“This is a complicated question,” if there are any exoplanets scientists have identified as being closest to containing life, Jang-Condell says. “While we have found a rocky Earth-sized planet, they are around stars different from the sun, or are too close or too far from their stars. And, the planets we have found that have orbits similar to Earth’s, they are too big, like Neptune or Jupiter, to host life. In fact, a large part of this conference is debating this exact question.”

Jang-Condell says she has been a member of NExSS since the organization began in 2015. At the group’s 2016 meeting, Jang-Condell suggested that the group have a conference and open it up to the larger scientific community and plugged Laramie as a “great place to host this conference.”

For more information about the conference, go to https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/habitableworlds2017/.


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