Since 2001 the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, based at the University of Washington, has brought an interdisciplinary approach to the study of planets and search for life outside our solar system.

Now, a new NASA initiative inspired by the UW lab is embracing that same team approach to bring together 10 universities and two research institutions in the ongoing search for life on planets around other stars.

It’s called the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or NExSS for short. The coalition will seek to better understand the various components of exoplanets — those outside our solar system — as well as how their host stars and neighbor planets might interact to support life.

“Planets are complicated systems and their environments can be affected by their interaction with the parent star and their sibling planets,” said Victoria Meadows, UW professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, or VPL. “This network brings together scientists who study exoplanets and our sun, the Earth, and the other planets in our solar system.”

The initiative will be led by scientists from the NASA Ames Research Center, the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

In addition to the UW, the network will include team members from nine other universities: University of California, University of Maryland, University of Arizona, University of Nebraska and University of Wyoming and Arizona State University as well as Stanford University, Yale University and Hampton University.

Participating institutions will study such topics as planet formation and why so many exoplanets orbit close to their stars; the atmospheres of giant planets transiting — or passing in front of — gas giants; tidal dynamics and orbital evolution of terrestrial-class planets; photochemical haze particles in hot exoplanetary atmospheres and the atmospheres of worlds discovered by the Kepler spacecraft. One team will work with citizen scientists to search for transiting planets in NASA’s public data archive.

The UW-based planetary lab is a founding member of the network. The lab combines expertise from Earth observing, Earth system science, planetary science and astronomy to explore factors that could affect the habitability of exoplanets and the remote detectability of global signs of habitability and life.

“VPL serves as an extraordinary example of how scientists across many disciplines learned to talk to, not at each other in order to apply their expertise and tools to answer a common question,” said Mary Voytek, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, of which the UW lab is part. “The success of VPL motivated the vision for organizing NExSS.”

Key to the new effort at finding life is understanding how biology reacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “system science” approach will tap into the collective expertise from each of the divisions in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate:

Astrophysicists provide data on the exoplanets and host stars for the application of this systems science framework.

Planetary scientists apply systems science to a wide variety of worlds within our solar system.

Earth scientists develop a systems science approach by studying our home planet.

Heliophysicists add another layer to this systems science approach, looking in detail at how the sun interacts with orbiting planets.

 “This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” said Jim Green, NASA director of planetary science. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

Meadows of the UW said “it ‘takes a village’ to model a planet, and our understanding of other worlds will be enhanced by interaction and sharing of knowledge and techniques among researchers with different scientific backgrounds.”

“There’s a lot we can learn from each other,” she said.