Astronomy & Astrophysics

How commonplace is life? In particular, are worlds where biology can gain a foothold very common or distressingly rare?

How commonplace is life? In particular, are worlds where biology can gain a foothold very common or distressingly rare? One way to answer these questions is to better understand the process of star and planet formation, and such studies are fundamental to much of the SETI Institute’s astronomy and astrophysics research. All stars and planets are born from disks made of the gas and dust that suffuses the vast reaches of the galaxy. This primordial material has been enriched by older stars that, at the end of their lives, expel molecules and atoms (such as carbon) that are essential for biology.

Using theoretical models, telescopic observations, and lab experiments, Institute scientists study how disks of collapsing gas and dust change over time and become solar systems. How are the complex molecules in such disks – including hydrocarbons, silicates, and icy coated grains – distributed, and how do they get included in the planets that are formed together with the host star? SETI Institute scientists have come up with new insights on the nature of protoplanetary disks, results that also bear on the formation of moons and rings around planets. In addition, our researchers have confirmed the existence of a global ocean under the icy carapace of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, and are doing theoretical studies that could explain Pluto’s tortured landscape. They make liberal use of data from robotic spacecraft such as Galileo, Cassini and New Horizons, and employ state-of-theart ground-based, airborne and orbiting telescopes, including SOFIA and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Understanding the mechanisms that produced our Sun and its retinue of orbiting worlds gives insight into the possibilities for life in other planetary systems.

An artist's illustration of a young, sun-like star encircled by its disk of gas and dust.
Could this be why our Solar System is odd?
As recently as two decades ago, we thought our Solar System was “normal.” That was a reasonable assumption as long as you didn’t look at it too closely.
Asteroid Impact Mission
Tracking Asteroids with the eVscope - Three Asteroids in two hours seen from San Francisco
Today is Asteroid Day—and in honor of that event, we want to highlight the eVscope’s huge potential to study asteroids, including ones that may someday present a threat to life on Earth.
Saturn's Rings  credit: NASA
New Film, "In Saturn’s Rings", is a Unique Tour of the Universe
In Saturn’s Rings is a trip through space.
Frontier Development Lab Group 2017
Welcome NASA Frontier Development Lab!
Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen report that the dust trail of 700-year comet Borisov, who just passed perihelion in 2014, will be in the Earth's pa
NASA’s SOFIA Confirms Planetary System Similar to Ours