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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Searching for signs of life in exoplanet Hycean Worlds

Are we alone in the Universe? This is one of the most fundamental questions faced by humanity, and we propose to answer it. Like Earth, life on planets outside the solar system likely needs liquid water.  Of the 5,500 exoplanets discovered so far, about 60 sit in a “habitable zone” where liquid water is possible. Notable among these are Hycean Worlds – exoplanets with liquid water oceans and hydrogen atmospheres. Hycean planets are easier to observe than Earth-like planets, but they also have very different chemistry than Earth’s, making them important candidates for detecting life.

The chemistry of these Hycean exoplanets can now be studied with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a NASA mission that began observations in 2022. Using a combination of laboratory studies, computer models, and telescope observations, a team comprised of UW–Madison investigators and graduate students spanning six departments in the College of Letters and Sciences will come together to answer this question: Can Hycean exoplanets support the chemistry required for the formation of life?

This collaborative effort is the first proposal from members of the new Wisconsin Center for Origins Research, WiCOR, which is slated to launch in Fall 2024. 

PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR                                                                       

Susanna Widicus Weaver, professor of chemistry and astronomy


Zach Adam, scientist in geosciences

Thomas Beatty, assistant professor of astronomy

Juliette Becker, assistant professor of astronomy

Jessie Cisewski Kehe, assistant professor of statistics

Melinda Soares-Furtado, NASA Hubble fellow and soon to be assistant professor of astronomy and physics

Zoe Todd, assistant professor of chemistry and astronomy

Hannah Zanowski, assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences

Ke Zhang, assistant professor of astronomy