Channel: University of Cambridge - Department of Physics
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New exoplanet think tank will ask the big questions about extra-terrestrial worlds


With funding from The Kavli Foundation, the think tank will bring together some of the major researchers in exoplanetary science – arguably the most exciting field in modern astronomy – for a series of annual meetings to address the biggest questions in this field which humanity could conceivably answer in the next decade.

“We’re really at the frontier in exoplanet research,” said Dr Nikku Madhusudhan of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who is leading the think tank. “The pace of new discoveries is incredible – it really feels like anything can be discovered any moment in our exploration of extra-terrestrial worlds. By bringing together some of the best minds in this field we aim to consolidate our collective wisdom and address the biggest questions in this field that humanity can ask and answer at this time.”

Tremendous advances have been made in the study of exoplanets since the first such planet was discovered around a sun-like star in 1995 by the Cavendish Laboratory’s Professor Didier Queloz. Just last month, a potentially habitable world was discovered in our own neighbourhood, orbiting Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the sun.

However, there are still plenty questions to be answered, such as whether we’re capable of detecting signatures of life on other planets within the next ten years, what the best strategies are to find habitable planets, how diverse are planets and their atmospheres, and how planets form in the first place.

With at least four space missions and numerous large ground-based facilities scheduled to become operational in the next decade, exoplanetary scientists will be able to detect more and more exoplanets, and will also have the ability to conduct detailed studies of their atmospheres, interiors, and formation conditions. At the same time, major developments are expected in all aspects of exoplanetary theory and data interpretation.

In order to make these major advances in the field, new interdisciplinary approaches are required. Additionally, as new scientific questions and areas emerge at an increasingly fast pace, there is a need for a focused forum where emerging questions in frontier areas of the field can be discussed. “Given the exciting advancements in exoplanetary science now is the right time to assess the state of the field and the scientific challenges and opportunities on the horizon,” said Professor Andy Fabian, director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge.

The think tank will operate in the form of a yearly Exoplanet Symposium series which will be focused on addressing pressing questions in exoplanetary science. One emerging area or theme in exoplanetary science will be chosen each year based on its critical importance to the advancement of the field, relevance to existing or imminent observational facilities, need for an interdisciplinary approach, and/or scope for fundamental breakthroughs.

About 30 experts in the field from around the world will discuss outstanding questions, new pathways, interdisciplinary synergies, and strategic actions that could benefit the exoplanet research community.

The inaugural symposium, “Kavli ExoFrontiers 2016”, is being held this week in Cambridge. The goal of this first symposium is to bring together experts from different areas of exoplanetary science to share their visions about the most pressing questions and future outlook of their respective areas. These visions will help provide both a broad outlook of the field and identify the ten most important questions in the field that could be addressed within the next decade. “We hope the think tank will provide a platform for new breakthroughs in the field through interdisciplinary and international efforts while bringing the most important scientific questions of our time to the fore,” said Madhusudhan. “We are in the golden age of exoplanetary science.”

More information about the Kavli ExoFrontiers 2016 Symposium is available at: www.ast.cam.ac.uk/meetings/2016/kavli.exofrontiers.2016.symposium

An international exoplanet ‘think tank’ is meeting this week in Cambridge to deliberate on the ten most important questions that humanity could answer in the next decade about planets outside our solar system.

We’re really at the frontier in exoplanet research.
Nikku Madhusudhan
Artist’s impression of the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 from the surface of one of its planets

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