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Pathways to Habitability (PatH)

Austrian National Research Network
A Key Project of the Austrian National Science Foundation

This page is under construction. The following text gives a brief overview of the project:


The Pathways to Habitability project was approved by the FWF (Austrian Science Foundation) on December 6, 2011, as a large national key project. The project addresses the astrophysical conditions for planetary habitability. It is anticipated to run for 8 years, between 1 March 2012 and 29 February 2020. The project is organized in 7 subprojects, 6 of which address specific science issues while the seventh is dealing with the coordination of the project, public relations, and conferences. The six science subprojects address i) hydrodynamic and chemical modeling of protoplanetary disks during their entire evolution, ii) water and other molecule transport during planet formation, iii) evolution of the stellar radiative and particle environment, iv) wind-magnetosphere interactions, v) radiative+particle interactions with upper planetary atmospheres, and vi) related processes in binary systems. Associated members also contribute solar physics apects.

The project will be conducted at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Vienna (project lead, Prof. Dr. Manuel Güdel), and the Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Graz. The University of Graz is also associated with the project.

The project will be supported by 6 new postdoctoral research associates and 5 new graduate students, apart from approximately 33 insitutional members working part-time on the tasks, and 45 international co-operation partners contributing specific expertise. We will seek further international collaborations with other national networks to expand on an European level.

The Science

Stars and planets form as the end products of a complex chain of mechanisms starting in the galactic interstellar medium. In the course of molecular cloud contraction and collapse, the initial conditions are set for all further evolution of the forming star and its planetary system. The ensuing processes of disk formation and evolution, growth of planets and evolution of their atmospheres lead to the large range of planetary environments witnessed in our own solar system but becoming evident also in the rapidly growing sample of extrasolar planetary systems. Conditions for habitability may be met on some planets, allowing formation of life to proceed. The forming and evolving stars themselves play an overwhelming role in controlling the evolution of their environments. Specifically, short-wavelength radiation (UV, EUV, X-rays), stellar ionized winds, and high-energy particles have been recognized to play a fundamental role in processing circumstellar material (e.g., ionization, heating, and chemical processing of protoplanetary disk surfaces); at later stages when planets have formed, the same agents are responsible for driving chemical and physical processes in planetary magnetospheres, ionospheres, and upper atmospheres, including their erosion.

How regions are established that potentially become habitable places in the evolving star-disk-planet systems is presently rather poorly understood. Apart from the direct starlight allowing for mild climates and liquid water on a planetary surface, many further conditions must be fulfilled and be kept within limits during the violent early years of a star's life. In particular, high levels of strongly varying X-ray output, strong stellar winds, and stellar mass ejections not known on the present-day Sun define environments very different from any in our present-day solar system.

To address questions on the formation of habitable environments in young stellar/planetary systems, we will establish multi-disciplinary national research network capitalizing on expertise available in different research centers in Austria. This network program will study feedback between the forming and evolving star and its protoplanetary disk and planetary system environment from the stage of star formation to young, fully formed and evolving planetary systems. We will specifically address

the evolution of protoplanetary disk material under the influence of the magnetically active central star,
the radiation, wind, and high-energy particle conditions around young stars themselves, relating them to episodes of extreme solar activity,
the processing, evolution and erosion of upper planetary atmospheres and magnetospheres in extreme conditions prevailing in young stellar systems,
and the evolution of habitable environments in multiple stellar systems.

Our principal goal will be to understand the formation and early evolution of habitable environments in young, active stellar surroundings in which high-energy processes and radiation prevail. These studies will reach significantly beyond any presently being conducted, and will strongly link to future observing opportunities with instruments such as the James Webb Space Telescope, ALMA, EChO and others.

Institutions and leads:

Institute of Astronomy, University of Vienna:

  • Prof. Dr. Manuel Güdel (overall project PI and lead of stellar science)
  • Prof. Dr. Ernst Dorfi (lead of hydrodynamic protoplanetary disk modeling)
  • Dr. Elke Pilat-Lohinger (lead of planetary system stability studies, binary systems)
  • Prof. Dr. Rudolf Dvorak (lead for small bodies and molecule transport during planet formation)

    Space Research Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Graz:

  • Dr. Helmut Lammer (lead of upper planetary atmosphere modeling)
  • Dr. Maxim Khodachenko (lead of magnetospheric modeling)

    Institute for Geophysics, Astrophysics, and Meteorology, University of Graz:

  • Prof. Dr. Arnold Hanslmeier (lead of solar physics and solar wind studies)

  • Header pictures: Horsehead Nebula: Credit T.A.Rector (NOAO/AURA/NSF) and Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA/NASA); Orion Proplyds: C.R. O'Dell/NASA; HH111 jet: B. Reipurth et al./HST/NASA; disk: ESA; Planetary rocky desert: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Archaean ocean: NASA/http://www.mainsgate.com/spacebio/modules/lu_teare.html; Origin of life/disk/Earth/molecules: NASA/Jenny Mottar.