ASU-Led Scientists Receive $5.7 Million NASA Award for Exoplanet Telescope Design

By Sophia Francise

August 2, 2023

NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) program has granted a $5.7 million award to an interdisciplinary team of scientists headed by Arizona State University to help develop and manage space telescopes to search for extraterrestrial life.

“Learning whether life exists on other planets is one of the most profound questions there is. We’ve wondered for centuries, but this century, for the first time in history, humans are developing the technologies to actually answer that,” said Steve Desch, principal investigator of the project and professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

James Webb Space Telescope and Habitable Exoplanet Observatory offer researchers valuable opportunities to search for life beyond the solar system by measuring gaseous abundances in their atmospheres.

Since 1995, thousands of exoplanets have been discovered around sun-like stars, with dozens being Earth-like, rocky planets with metal cores.

“Confidently identifying life on an exoplanet requires understanding its chemistry, but that depends on so many variables. Because we can’t simply pick up and examine an exoplanet rock like we would on Earth, our TREC team will use our experimental and theoretical toolbox to map out all the different ways rocky planets can manifest chemically,” said Cayman Unterborn, deputy principal investigator, former School of Earth and Space Exploration postdoctoral researcher and now a research scientist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.  

With the recent NExSS grant, the team will study the geochemical cycles on exoplanet surfaces, focusing on determining the presence and abundance of vital elements like carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus.1

The Tracing Rocky Exoplanet Compositions (TREC) Team

The main objective of the Tracing Rocky Exoplanet Compositions (TREC) team is to gather information that will enable future measurements to detect life. 

“The TREC team will start with measuring elements in exoplanet host stars. Earth is close in composition to the Sun, and exoplanets should be similar to their stars. But Earth does not appear to have formed proportionally as much carbon or other key elements as the sun. Moreover, many key elements it acquired are trapped in Earth’s core or mantle and are not involved in geochemical cycles on Earth’s surface,” said Desch.

They will utilize advanced models and laboratory measurements to understand Earth’s formation and apply them to exoplanetary systems to determine the presence of carbon and nitrogen on rocky exoplanet surfaces. This data will enable future searches for life on these planets.

In addition to principal investigator Desch and deputy principal investigator Unterborn, the TREC team includes seven co-investigators from ASU and seven co-investigators or collaborators from other institutions. 

The institutions represented in the team include Pennsylvania State University, Louisiana State University, Towson University, University of California, Riverside, Indiana University, National Science Foundation, and SETI Institute.

They bring expert knowledge across astronomy and astrophysics, geophysics and geochemistry, planetary science and meteoritics, exoplanets, and education research.


  1. Samantha Chow, ‘ASU-led team awarded $5.7M NASA grant to predict range of rocky exoplanet compositions’, ASU News, 31 July 2023,[]