What recipes produce a habitable planet?

David Ruth
713-348-6327
david@rice.edu

Jade Boyd
713-348-6778
jadeboyd@rice.edu

What recipes produce a habitable planet?

Cross-disciplinary team will track life-essential elements during planets’ early evolution

HOUSTON — (Sept. 17, 2018) — NASA has awarded a $7.7 million grant for a Rice University-led team to join the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) project and conduct interdisciplinary, multi-institutional research to find different recipes nature might follow to produce rocky planets capable of supporting life.

planet

An artist’s conception of planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world found in the habitable zone around a distant sun-like star. (Image courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

As any cook knows, it takes the right recipe and getting the right ingredients to make a tasty dish, and the same principle applies to habitable rocky planets, said Rice Earth and planetary scientist Rajdeep Dasgupta, the principal investigator on the CLEVER Planets research program.

“A recipe for life as we know it requires essential elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorous and sulfur,” said Dasgupta, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice. “But the first billion years of a rocky planet’s life are turbulent. On Earth, that period was marked by enormous change, not only at the surface but inside the planet as well. For planetary habitability, life-essential elements must survive that period in a bioavailable form.”

Rajdeep Dasgupta

Rice University Earth and planetary scientist Rajdeep Dasgupta is the principal investigator on a five-year, $7.7 million NASA grant for the CLEVER Planets project, which will explore what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

CLEVER Planets — short for “Cycles of Life-Essential Volatile Elements in Rocky Planets” — will explore what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. It will involve experts from wide-ranging disciplines such as astrophysics, geology, geochemistry, geophysics, organic chemistry and atmospheric and climate science. The team includes 11 co-investigators from Rice, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, UCLA, the University of California, Davis and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“We have the expertise to trace life-essential elements through the first billion-year journey from protoplanetary disks to prebiotic molecules on the surface of young worlds,” Dasgupta said. “Some of the processes that are central to this — the ones happening inside the planet and the feedbacks that link interior processes with those on the surface — are largely unexplored in the context of exoplanets.”

He said the research will be guided by knowledge from the solar system’s rocky planets — Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars — and other objects, but CLEVER Planets’ goal is to extend knowledge to rocky worlds orbiting distant stars.

“We know more about our own solar system than any other,” Dasgupta said. “That’s very useful for comparative planetology, but the focus of our search is beyond our own backyard. We want to construct and constrain as many possible pathways to rocky planet habitability as we can.”

Six Rice faculty members of the CLEVER Planets project

The Rice University-based CLEVER Planets project is exploring what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. Rice faculty investigators on the five-year, NASA-funded project include (counterclockwise from left) Andrea Isella, Rajdeep Dasgupta, Laurence Yeung, Cin-Ty Lee, Pedram Hassanzadeh and Adrian Lenardic. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Co-investigators on the five-year grant include Cin-Ty Lee, professor and chair of the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science at Rice; Adrian Lenardic, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Laurence Yeung, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Pedram Hassanzadeh, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Andrea Isella, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice; Tom McCollom of the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics; Hilke Schlichting, associate professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences at UCLA; Sarah Stewart, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Davis; Aaron Burton, planetary scientist in the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division; and Francis McCubbin, astromaterials curator in the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division. The CLEVER Planets team also includes collaborators Christopher Johns-Krull and David Alexander, both professors of physics and astronomy at Rice.

The Rice-led team was selected from a competition in response to the NASA Astrobiology Institute Cycle 8 Cooperative Agreement, and funding was awarded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to be a part of the NExSS Project. NExSS, a research coordination network funded by NASA, is dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology and climate interact to create the conditions for life.

-30-

High-resolution IMAGES are available for download at:

https://news.rice.edu/files/2018/09/0911_ASTROBIO-gp5-lg-2koaztj.jpg
CAPTION: The Rice University-based CLEVER Planets project is exploring what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. Rice faculty investigators on the five-year, NASA-funded project include (counterclockwise from left) Andrea Isella, Rajdeep Dasgupta, Laurence Yeung, Cin-Ty Lee, Pedram Hassanzadeh and Adrian Lenardic. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

https://news.rice.edu/files/2018/09/0911_ASTROBIO-rd13-lg-1f6a8ft.jpg
CAPTION: Rice University earth and planetary scientist Rajdeep Dasgupta is the principal investigator on a five-year, $7.7 million NASA grant for the CLEVER Planets project, which will explore what happens to life-essential elements in a rocky planet’s formative years. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PIA19824.gif
CAPTION: An artist’s conception of planet Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world found in the habitable zone around a distant sun-like star. (Image courtesy of NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

https://www.nasa.gov/content/kepler-62f-small-habitable-zone-world
CAPTION: An artist’s concept of Kepler-62f, a super-Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a star smaller and cooler than the sun. (Image courtesy of NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech)

NExSS homepage: https://nexss.info/

CLEVER Planets homepage: https://cleverplanets.rice.edu/

Related research from Rice:

Life beyond Earth: No plate tectonics, no problem — March 28, 2018
https://news.rice.edu/2018/03/28/life-beyond-earth-no-plate-tectonics-no-problem-2/

Study: Earth’s carbon points to planetary smashup — Sept. 5, 2016
https://news.rice.edu/2016/09/05/study-earths-carbon-points-to-planetary-smashup/

Oxygen atmosphere recipe = tectonics + continents + life — May 16, 2016
https://news.rice.edu/2016/05/16/oxygen-atmosphere-recipe-tectonics-continents-life/

Going deep to study long-term climate evolution — Oct. 31, 2013
https://news.rice.edu/2013/10/31/going-deep-to-study-long-term-climate-evolution/

This release can be found online at news.rice.edu.

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews.

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,970 undergraduates and 2,934 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for quality of life and for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for happiest students by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go to http://tinyurl.com/RiceUniversityoverview.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.