FOLLOW THE VOLATILES!
Welcome to the website of Team CHNOPS. We are a multi-institutional team of interdisciplinary scientists from UC Santa Cruz, University of Hawaii at Manoa, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Kansas, and NASA Ames Research Center. We are funded by NASA’s Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research (ICAR). Our shared goal is to understand the diversity of planets orbiting other stars in the Galaxy and how that diversity impacts planetary habitability.
What Are Volatiles?
“Volatiles” are molecules that have a low vaporization temperature. Volatiles like water, methane, oxygen, and carbon dioxide can accumulate in Earth’s atmosphere. With the right technology, Astronomers can detect the presence of volatiles in the atmospheres of distant planets — even those orbiting other stars in the Galaxy (called exoplanets).
When light passes through a gas, atoms and molecules imprint their unique chemical fingerprint on the light. If we can catch this light and spread it out into a rainbow (or spectrum) with specialized instruments, we can examine the chemical fingerprints and learn about the gas itself. Astronomers use this technique when they observe stars and planets with telescopes equipped with a spectrometer. The Hubble Space Telescope is one such telescope. With Hubble, astronomers detected the chemical fingerprints of water molecules in the atmospheres of giant exoplanets.
Astronomers are about to get a huge boost in capability with the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope. This marvel of new technology is equipped with a spectrometer and promises to usher in a new epoch of research focused on the study of planetary atmospheres.
What have we learned about exoplanets?
NASA’s Kepler Mission showed us that the diversity of planets in the galaxy far exceeds the diversity of planets in our Solar System. Its aim was to understand the prevalence of terrestrial-size planets orbiting in the Goldilocks (or Habitable) Zone. Indeed, we learned there are billions of such planets in our Galaxy!
Could all such planets support life as we know it?
We don’t yet know. What we do know is that planet formation and evolution lead to all kinds of strange and exotic worlds. We want to understand the physical processes that yield such diversity so we can pinpoint the most likely abodes of life.
Atmospheric studies will give us a new way of looking at planetary diversity that hasn’t yet been explored in detail, especially for planets smaller than Jupiter or Neptune analogs.
Understanding planetary environments requires contributions from many different disciplines like Earth Science, Planetary Science, and Astronomy. Our team will follow the pathways of volatile elements from circumstellar disks to the first building blocks of young planets, from the geochemistry of planetary interiors to the photochemistry of planetary atmospheres.
The elements most critical for life as we know it are Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorous, and Sulfur. These are some of the most common elements in the universe and are present in many of the molecules that end up in planetary atmospheres.
We call ourselves Team CHNOPS to remind us that life is a planetary phenomenon. Our long-term goal is to one day find evidence of life beyond Earth and put an end to our cosmic loneliness.