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Exoplanet Astrobiology: The Search for Habitable Planets and Life Beyond the Solar System

Presentation #201.02 in the session Plenary 4.

Published onJun 20, 2022
Exoplanet Astrobiology: The Search for Habitable Planets and Life Beyond the Solar System

In the future, comparative exoplanet science will illuminate how the evolution of planet, star and planetary system produce a diversity of worlds, including those that may be habitable or even harbor life. The recent Astro2020 Decadal Survey identified Worlds and Suns in Context as a major scientific opportunity that interlinks studies of stars, planetary systems and the Solar System. Driven by this theme, the priority science area of Pathways to Habitable Worlds supports and analyzes data from key capabilities such as extremely large ground-based telescopes, JWST, and the recommended Large Infrared Optical Ultraviolet space-based direct imaging telescope concept (LUVEx).

In the near term, JWST and ground-based telescopes will provide the first opportunity to search for signs of habitability and life on terrestrial exoplanets orbiting nearby M dwarf stars. Initial studies will focus on whether or not these planets retain atmospheres or oceans, with the ultimate goal to determine the atmospheric composition and search for signs of life. Studies with more capable telescope like LUVEx will complement and build on these initial forays into exoplanet astrobiology by enabling direct observation of exoplanet oceans, and reflected light spectra that may reveal further signs of habitability and biosignatures for a sample of 25 habitable zone planets orbiting more Sun-like FGK stars, as well as M dwarfs.

However, even with these impressive new capabilities the search for life beyond the Solar System will remain one of the most challenging of scientific endeavors. To increase our chances of success, it is essential to draw upon expertise and constraints from multiple branches of observational and theoretical exoplanet and stellar science, as well as Solar System science and laboratory measurements. Key interdisciplinary themes that support the future of exoplanet science include Solar System and exoplanet synergies, star-planet interactions and comparative planetology across stellar host types, the search for new biosignatures, and the development of frameworks for biosignature verification and interpretation.

In this talk I will discuss the interconnectedness of exoplanet science on its pathway to habitable worlds and life, provide examples of what we can hope to learn from upcoming telescopes about habitability and biosignatures, and highlight major interdisciplinary research foci that will support the future of exoplanet science.

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