Did you ever look up at a brilliant night sky and wonder...are we alone?
That is one of the many questions that NASA would like to answer. To do so, it’s established Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS, an unique collaboration between several groups of experts spanning a variety of specific fields. They’re tasked with working together and tapping into each other's knowledge as they search for life beyond our solar system.
“As we improve techniques, as technology improves, then we’ll be able to observe smaller and smaller planets and start looking at the planets that are more like earth’s size. We want to understand them, and then, obviously, some of the discussion at least goes toward questions of are these planets habitable."
Put simply, an exoplanet is a planet beyond our solar system that orbits around a star. With NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, more than 1,000 exoplanets have been found, with thousands more waiting to be confirmed.
One of the groups on this mission is headed by Dr. Adam Jensen, a physics professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He’s leading a diverse team that will explore the existence and evolution of exospheres.
“As we improve techniques, as technology improves, then we’ll be able to observe smaller and smaller planets and start looking at the planets that are more like earth’s size. We want to understand them, and then, obviously, some of the discussion at least goes toward questions of are these planets habitable,” noted Dr. Jensen.
Dr. Jensen has been on NASA’s radar for quite some time. Not only did he hold a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, but he was awarded a $215,443 research grant from NASA’s Exoplanet Research Program and has published numerous analyses of exoplanetary atmospheres and interstellar medium. He was the first to detect excited hydrogen around a planet, which can outline the evolution of that planet’s atmosphere and tell us something about its magnetic field.
The group brings together earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists and astrophysicists in the hopes that interdisciplinary partnerships will provide a more complete picture of exoplanets.
“The organizers were really pushing us to talk to people outside of our subfield and see what types of unusual connections we can make. We all want to understand these exoplanets better,” said Dr. Jensen.
The idea is that if Dr. Jensen discovers information about an exoplanet’s magnetic field, then joining forces with another scientist who understands how magnetic fields work inside planets could lead to understanding what might be taking place in the planet’s interior. The ultimate goal of the NASA team is to collectively observe smaller exoplanets—ones that are earth-sized—assess their atmospheres and determine if they are habitable. Then we might finally know if, in fact, we do have extraterrestrial neighbors — and where we can find them.