A Statistical Comparative Planetology Approach to the Hunt for Habitable Exoplanets and Life Beyond the Solar System
Bean et al
The search for habitable exoplanets and life beyond the Solar System is one of the most compelling scientific opportunities of our time. Nevertheless, the high cost of building facilities that can address this topic and the keen public interest in the results of such research requires the rigorous development of experiments that can deliver a definitive advance in our understanding. Most work to date in this area has focused on a "systems science" approach of obtaining and interpreting comprehensive data for individual planets to make statements about their habitability and the possibility that they harbor life. This strategy is challenging because of the diversity of exoplanets, both observed and expected, and the limited information that can be obtained with astronomical instruments. Here we propose a complementary approach that is based on performing surveys of key planetary characteristics and using statistical marginalization to answer broader questions than can be addressed with a small sample of objects. The fundamental principle of this comparative planetology approach is maximizing what can be learned from each type of measurement by applying it widely rather than requiring that multiple kinds of observations be brought to bear on a single object. As a proof of concept, we outline a survey of terrestrial exoplanet atmospheric water and carbon dioxide abundances that would test the habitable zone hypothesis and lead to a deeper understanding of the frequency of habitable planets. We also discuss ideas for additional surveys that could be developed to test other foundational hypotheses is this area.