Victoria Meadows, University of Washington
In the last decade, new astronomical instrumentation and techniques have enabled the discovery of more than 300 planets that orbit other stars other than the Sun. The vast majority of the “extrasolar planets” discovered so far are gas or ice giants, planets with similar masses and compositions to Neptune or Jupiter. However, a growing number have masses less than 10 times the Earth’s, and these “superEarths” are likely to be rocky, like the Earth. The discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of planet formation and planetary science, and lay the foundation for the scientific search for life beyond our Solar System.
The suite of extrasolar planets discovered to date includes sub-classes, such as the superEarths, that are not represented in our Solar System.
The new found diversity of planets has challenged and shaken many of our theories of planet formation and evolution, and provided new test cases to enhance our understanding of planetary processes and the interaction of planets with their planetary system environment. The discovery of superEarths, and the continued search for truly Earth-like extrasolar planets has also provided the first observational step in the search for ‘habitable” worlds, worlds that could support liquid water and possibly life on their surfaces. In advance of this observational discovery, Earth-based field work, spacecraft observations and theoretical modeling enables exploration of the potential diversity of habitable planetary environments, life’s coevolution with different environments, and the detectability of signs of life in remote observations of an extrasolar planet.
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