NASA fellowship fuels doctoral student’s search for alien life

Author: Jules Bernstein
July 19, 2022

NASA has awarded a prestigious fellowship to Daria Pidhorodetska, a UCR doctoral student in Earth and Planetary Sciences, to support her dissertation research examining the climates of planets in other solar systems, also called exoplanets. 

Earth and Planetary Sciences doctoral student Daria Pidhorodetska

Pidhorodetska’s research will illuminate the remotely observable properties that will distinguish habitable planets from those that cannot support life as we know it.

“Earth’s atmosphere has traditionally served as the template for imagining what life might look like on an exoplanet, but in reality, the climates of other Earth-like worlds may be drastically different,” Pidhorodetska said. “Determining which of these worlds could be habitable will help us answer a question as old as time, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’”

NASA has a long history of supporting research in the search for life; NASA’s first exobiology grant was awarded in 1959 for the development of the “Wolf Trap,” an instrument to detect microbial life on the surface of another planet. 

The Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology, or FINESST, award affords recipients $150,000 over the course of three years for graduate school tuition as well as travel funds for professional development. 

Next-generation NASA observatories will help Pidhorodetska study rocky planets in the outer reaches of their host stars’ habitable zones, where it is not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist. Liquid water is a key prerequisite for hosting life as we know it. 

The James Webb Space Telescope, as well as future space-based telescope missions endorsed by the astronomical community, will probe the atmospheres of rocky planets, including those that receive much less warming light from their star than the Earth receives from our sun. 

In order for life to flourish, the atmospheres of these strange planets must maintain far greater concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide than Earth has today.

“Daria’s research will advance our understanding of the likely relationship between the quantity of these gases and the distance of the planet from its star by using more advanced computational models than have previously been employed,” said Edward Schwieterman, UCR assistant professor of astrobiology and graduate advisor. 

“With the commissioning of the Webb telescope and the imminent release of the first scientific observations of terrestrial exoplanet atmospheres, Daria’s research is poised to make substantial contributions to exoplanetary science,” he said.

“I am very excited and grateful for the opportunity from NASA FINESST to do such exciting work,” Pidhorodetska said.