About the Virtual Planetary Laboratory
The Virtual Planet Laboratory (VPL) is a team of scientists who are using the
best supercomputers available to simulate Earth-sized (terrestrial) planets.
VPL's goal is to discover the likely range of habitable planets around other
stars and to find out how these planets might appear to future planet-finding
To date over seven hundred planets have been discovered orbiting
This has motivated NASA to plan space-based observatories designed to search
for life on other worlds and to look for planets which are similar to Earth.
The VPL is working to determine what the signatures of life on an extrasolar
terrestrial planet will look like and
directly influence these future space missions.
The closest planetary systems are many light-years away and difficult to image
in detail, but the faint light emitted by these planets can provide a wealth of information. By studying the spectra of extrasolar planets, astronomers can look for the signatures of life or for signs that these planets are capable of
The Virtual Planetary Laboratory is working to discover what
these "biosignatures" will look like to
help scientists know how to recognize habitable worlds and to
discriminate between planets with and without life.
An equally important goal of the VPL project is to learn how to recognize
"false positives" -- planets that may appear to have life, but don't. These
planets would mimic some of the accepted signs of life, but would produce them
using geological and atmospheric processes. Such planets might be
distinguishable from inhabited worlds by looking at a broader spectral range,
or taking many measurements over a period of time to understand the way these
Currently, scientists are limited to just one model of a habitable planet:
Earth. The key to expanding our concept of what constitutes a habitable planet
is to simulate terrestrial planets, trying different combinations of size,
composition and location.
In the first phase of the project, the software will be used to re-create
familiar planets: Venus, Earth and Mars. Comparing the models with real data
from observations of these planets will tell scientists whether the software
is producing accurate simulations. Later stages will produce abiotic, or
non-living, planets, and eventually, planets where life has found a foothold.
To learn more about the work being done at the VPL, see our
new educational video