Planetary Exploration

The twentieth century witnessed a major change in how we learn about space. Until then, we studied the other bodies of the cosmos remotely, with our telescopes. In the past half-century, we have sent exploratory spacecraft to the vicinities of all the planets, including Pluto. These efforts have revolutionized our understanding of the how the solar system was formed, what it’s made of, and which of these worlds might be suitable for life. Not long ago, astrobiologists spoke of a “habitable zone” around a star, defined as the range of orbital distances within which surface temperatures would allow the presence of liquid water. However, solar system exploration has greatly expanded this range of habitability. We have learned that at least three moons of Jupiter and two satellites of Saturn may have liquids either on their surface or underneath a thick crust of ice. Any of these worlds could be harboring life. Members of the SETI Institute’s planetary exploration research thrust are actively involved with these discoveries. Institute scientists have been involved in all the Mars missions of the past 15 years, and play a critical role in the selection of landing sites for rovers as well as being science team members and instrument developers. They are expert in the analysis of mission data, and have made several key discoveries, including the recent confirmation that early Mars was habitable for microbial life and that water is flowing near the surface of Mars today. In the outer solar system, Institute researchers have participated in the Cassini mission to Saturn, and have discovered new moons and ring systems around the gas giant planets and Pluto. Most recently, SETI Institute scientists helped guide the New Horizons spacecraft safely past Pluto, at a distance of five billion miles, and into the even-farther Kuiper Belt.

Figure 1
Washboard and Fluted Terrains on Pluto as Evidence for Ancient Glaciation
November 13, 2018, Mountain View, CA – A letter authored by SETI Institute scientist Oliver White was published by Nature Astronomy today.
Janice Bishop
Janice Bishop honored at Geological Society of America Annual Meeting
On Sunday November 4th, Janice Bishop, Senior Research Scientist and Chair of the Astrobiology Group at the SETI Institute, was honored as a new Fellow o
Soil sample
What can soil experiments tell us about Mars?
SETI Institute scientist Janice Bishop recently performed experiments in the lab to investigate how salts in the martian soil may be causing surface crac
Image of the Mars Rover
NASA Prepares to Select Landing Site for Mars Life Detection Mission
SETI Institute scientist John Roma (J.R.) Skok is working with NASA to help decide where the Mars 2020 rover could collect samples.
Made of Mars artist's view of researchers collecting basaltic rock in Mars.
A Future Made of Mars
John Roma (J.R.) Skok, PhD, principal investigator at the SETI Institute, is working to put the journey to Mars in your hands.
Janice Bishop
Janice Bishop Elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America
Congratulations to Janice Bishop, named 2018 Fellow of the Geological Society of America.