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Planetary Atmospheres and the Search for Signs of Life Beyond Earth

Tuesday 6 February 2024
Gorlaeus Building


Faculty Talk

For thousands of years, inspired by the star-filled dark night sky, people have wondered what lies beyond Earth. Today, the search for signs of life is a key motivator in exoplanet research.  A suitable “biosignature gas” is one that: can accumulate in an atmosphere against atmospheric radicals and other sinks; has strong, unique atmospheric spectral features; and has limited abiological false positives. Despite a growing list of potential biosignature gases and exquisite data from the successfully operational James Webb Space Telescope, we are now confronted with practical challenges of tiny signals, unknown exoplanet environments, and host star contamination. Our pace and history of milestone discovery in exoplanets in the last quarter century, combined with new telescope paradigms, promises to eventually deliver on finding signs of life beyond Earth.

About Sara Seager

Professor Sara Seager is a Professor of Physics, Planetary Science, Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she holds the Class of 1941 Professor Chair.  She has been a pioneer in the research field of exoplanets, with ground-breaking work ranging from the detection of exoplanet atmospheres to innovative theories about life on other worlds, to development of novel space mission concepts.

Professor Seager was the Deputy Science Director of the MIT-led NASA Explorer-class mission TESS, was PI of the JPL-MIT CubeSat ASTERIA, and is a lead of the Starshade Mission concepts to find a true Earth analog orbiting a Sun-like star. Her most recent work includes running the Morning Star Missions to Venus international consortium. Among other accolades she is a MacArthur Fellow, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and has Asteroid 9729 named in her honor.

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