Large Grants
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Previous Programs

2016 Physics of the Observer
2016 Awardees

2015 The Physics of What Happens
2015 Awardees

2013 Physics of Information
2013 Awardees

2010 The Nature of Time
2010 Awardees

2008 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2008 Awardees

2006 Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology
2006 Awardees

Dr. Sara Seager
Carnegie Institution of Washington


George Cody, Carnegie Institution of Washington
Matthew Schrenk, Carnegie Institution of Washington
Drake Deming, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Marc Kuchner, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Project Title

The Characterization & Search for Life on Hot Rocky Exoplanets

Project Summary

Are we alone? Astronomers have made progress towards answering this question by discovering almost 200 planets around other stars. Most of these newly discovered planets, however, are strikingly different from Earth. A new class of exoplanets known as "hot super Earths" has recently been discovered. These exoplanets are likely the only exoplanets to consist substantially of rock, making them the best analogs we have for Earth. We propose to investigate whether life can exist on these hot rocky planets - and if it exists - whether we could detect it.

The definition of life is controversial. We will bypass this controversy and focus on what life does, rather than what life is. One thing life does is extract energy from its environment; this process is called "metabolism." Humans, for example, extract energy from the environment by metabolizing food. We will theoretically evaluate the possible metabolisms, which could be operative on a hot super Earth, then determine which chemical signatures will be generated in the process. We will then study how we can detect these chemicals using current or already-planned telescopes. The method we propose to develop to identify metabolic products on exoplanets will enable a key advancement towards finding signs of extraterrestrial life.

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