Virtual Planetary Laboratory

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Research Overview

The Virtual Planetary Laboratory is a team of scientists who are building planets from the ground up -- on the computer. We are astronomers, atmospheric chemists, spectroscopists, geochemists, and climatologists who are working together to figure out how to tell if a planet harbors life or not.

We are developing a suite of modeling tools to simulate the environments and spectra of extrasolar planets. These modeling tools will constitute a Virtual Planetary Laboratory and will provide the first models to couple the radiative fluxes, climate, chemistry, geology and biology of a terrestrial planet, to produce a self-consistent planetary state. This powerful new facility will generate of a wide range of plausible atmospheres for extrasolar planets, and for the atmospheres of early Earth.

This multidisciplinary effort combines existing models from five major research fields to develop a theoretical framework which parameterizes all the major processes of a terrestrial planet. The comprehensiveness and flexibility of the modeling tools enables a non-Earth-centric study of terrestrial planet atmospheres and the signs of life to extend our search for the signs of life to non-oxygen producing life, around stars very different to our own.

Our objective is to understand the characteristics and environments of plausible extrasolar planets both with and without life, and to use that understanding to drive the design and search strategies for future planet detecting and characterizing observatories.

This research program is a cooperative effort consisting of a 21 member multidisciplinary team that leverages the resources and knowledge from 7 academic and research institutions. The majority of the computational research will be accomplished at JPL/Caltech, although all institutions will provide investigators' scientific expertise.

Once validated and documented, the VPL will be made available to the Astrobiology community through a Web-based interface or collaboration with our team. This powerful and versatile tool has many potential applications beyond the scope of this research, and we have already identified a number of potential uses by other NAI members. These include:

  • derivation of plausible extrasolar atmospheric compositions that can be generated for laboratory tests on microbial evolution and adaptation, and
  • providing a theoretical framework in which to model and visualize the NAI's ongoing work on geological and biological processes and their effects on plausible atmospheres for early Earth and extrasolar planets.

Construction of the VPL will be achieved through five tasks, where each successive task builds substantially on the work of previous tasks. This hierarchical implementation plan allows us to validate the model and produce interim results at each stage of added complexity and versatility.


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