Asst. Prof. Leslie Rogers on award-winning team for Scialog: Signatures of Life in the Universe

October 20, 2022

Team to pursue innovative research on how volatile reservoirs within planets inform life outside the Solar System

Leslie Rogers
Leslie Rogers

Assistant Professor Leslie Rogers, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the College, is part of an interdisciplinary team that has been awarded a Scialog: Signatures of Life in the Universe Award. Her team is among eight to receive $55,000 in catalyst funding and will pursue the topic “Volatile Reservoirs and the Habitability of M-Earths.”

Now in its second year, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the Heising-Simons Foundation, The Kavli Foundation, and NASA select the winning teams.

Scialog is short for “science + dialog.” Created in 2010 by RSCA, the Scialog format supports research by stimulating intensive interdisciplinary conversation and community building around an important scientific theme. Teams of two to four Fellows who have not previously collaborated compete for seed funding for high-risk, high-reward projects based on the innovative ideas that emerge at the conference.

The Heising-Simons Foundation is funding Rogers’ team, which includes Nick Cowan of McGill University, Joseph O'Rourke of Arizona State University, and Chenguang Sun of University of Texas at Austin.

“Fellows of this initiative have a great responsibility,” said RCSA President & CEO Daniel Linzer. “This research will help inform priorities and design the science for multibillion-dollar public investments in space missions in the years to come.”

Rogers shared more details on this exciting opportunity in a brief interview.

Your team specializes in Earth and Planetary Science. What is your high-risk, high-reward project trying to answer?

The vast majority of temperate rocky planets orbit close to red dwarf stars, but it remains unclear if these planets — which we call “M-Earths” — can actually hold on to water. Terrestrial planets orbiting in the habitable zones of M-dwarfs may be desiccated through atmospheric escape driven by the stars’ XUV radiation. Establishing whether M-Earths can maintain surface liquid water is a crucial problem in the search for life outside the Solar System.

In this project, we will explore novel volatile reservoirs within rocky planets and evaluate their effect on the volatile retention, magnetic field generation, and habitability of M-Earths. These novel reservoirs include metallic cores, basal magma oceans, and hydrogen-loving mantle minerals. Our goal is to build a comprehensive modeling framework for the coupled thermal evolution and distribution of volatiles within rocky exoplanets.

What will the Scialog funding support?

The grant will go toward supporting a UChicago graduate student to collaborate with me on this project. And, it is also notable that this work will build upon and apply rocky planet thermal evolution models developed by UChicago astronomy and astrophysics graduate student, Jisheng Zhang.

The team will also use the funding to meet together. I am looking forward to gathering with an interdisciplinary team to tackle the fascinating and important question of M-Earth habitability.

To read more about the winning projects, view the Scialog press release.

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