Are we alone in the Universe?

Victoria Meadows can’t answer that question. But as director of UW Astrobiology and principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), she and her colleagues are helping us inch ever closer to an answer.

As astrobiologists, we’re trying to understand whether there is life beyond Earth, what it might be, where it might want to live, and what its distribution is throughout the Universe,” says Meadows, professor of astronomy. The research brings together scientists in astronomy, biology, earth and space sciences, atmospheric sciences, and other fields. For her leadership in astrobiology, Meadows recently received the Frank Drake Award from the SETI Institute.

Meadows explains that scientists cannot yet directly observe planets like Earth to determine their habitability. No current telescope is powerful enough for such observations. Instead scientists use computer modeling to test how altering various factors — the type of star around which a planet orbits, for example, or its interaction with neighboring planets — might impact its habitability. The goal is to identify planets that are able to support liquid water on their surface.