Institute for Planets and Life

Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University

 Areas of Research


Astrophysics seek to understand the universe—and our place in it—by applying the laws of physics and chemistry and explaining the life cycles of stars, planets, galaxies, and other objects in the universe. Research in the Institute for Planets and Life (IPL) includes:

  • Search for and characterization of exoplanets with different techniques, including planetary transit and eclipse observations, radial velocity and interferometry, and high-contrast imaging
  • Exoplanetary atmospheres: biomarkers, characterization, and modeling
  • Astrophysics of protoplanetary disks, debris disks, and planetesimal collisions
  • Formation and early evolution of planetary systems
  • Influence of the central star on long-term planet habitability
  • Exploration of our solar system with space missions

Planetary Sciences

Planetary sciences focus on the geological, chemical, and physical processes that shape environmental conditions on early Earth, other planets and moons, and seek to understand whether those conditions could support life. A key aspect of this work is to identify essential biosignatures to advance the understanding of our solar system—and those that lie beyond it. Planetary sciences research in the Institute for Planets and Life (IPL) includes:

  • Planetary atmospheres, including early Earth, Titan, Europa, and exoplanets, to understand how atmospheric chemistry affects the habitability of a planet
  • Investigating the habitability of current or former ocean worlds (e.g., Mars, Europa, Enceladus, Titan), including developing techniques to search for signs of extinct or extant life
  • Long-term stability and survivability of the Earth over geological timescales
  • Life under extreme conditions, including how organisms adapt to environmental conditions and the preservation of biosignatures
  • Planetary magnetic fields and dynamo theory and their effects on planetary atmosphere and habitability

Biological Sciences

Biological sciences probe the limits for life as we know it by studying microorganisms in extreme environments and in environments analogous to the planets and moons of our solar system—and those that lie beyond it. Identifying characteristics that are signatures for life is an essential part of this work. Biological sciences research in the Institute for Planets and Life (IPL) includes:

  • Adaptive mechanisms of extremophiles and responses to environmental stresses
  • Ecosystem-level studies of microbial communities at the dry extreme for life. Field sites include the Atacama Desert, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, and many other deserts around the world
  • Exploring life in liquid environments such as the sub-surface oceans on Europa and Enceladus, via laboratory work, modeling, and studies of analogous environments on Earth
  • Radiation hazards and mitigation: exploring how cosmic radiation modifies life and signs of life, and whether an atmosphere is needed to protect emergent life
  • Characterization of biosignatures resulting from microbial activity