Welcome to the Planetary Systems Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. We are located in Greenbelt, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, in NASA's first science center, where our scientists are part of the world's largest Earth and space science research organization. These pages will introduce you to our work exploring the bodies of our Solar System and planets around other stars. You will find information about our research and instrument work, along with scientific data and links to original publications.
Our work applies “systems science” – the concept that planets are the result of diverse and interacting systems, including atmospheric dynamics, atmospheric chemistry, surface processes, sub-surface processes, ocean chemistry, and ocean circulation. This approach has advanced our understanding of Earth as a planet, and we apply this framework to a wide diversity of worlds. We use this perspective to study some of the smallest bodies in our Solar System to some of the largest known exoplanets (planets around other stars). To study these processes, and their interactions, we use a variety of techniques but focus on Solar System and exoplanet observations, instrument development, and mission leadership. We discuss each of those areas of work below. An example of this work is shown below, in a video featuring PSL team members that were involved in the Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) instrument, which visited the Saturn system as part of the Cassini mission.
Many members of our branch conduct observations of Solar System worlds or exoplanets. We do this using a vast array of platforms, including telescopes on Earth, space-based telescopes, and instruments on spacecraft that orbit or land on other worlds. Many of these observations have helped us understand the long-term evolution of the Solar System, and how water and organics were delivered to Earth. Other observations have been of ongoing meteorological and atmospheric processes on Mars, Jupiter, and other planets throughout the Solar System. And we’ve also conducted observations of the chemistry of many planets, unveiling the bulk composition of exoplanets and detailing the trace gas chemistry of our nearest neighbor, Mars. A video featuring Geronimo Villanueva’s observations of Mars is below.
Our branch’s instrument work focuses on the design, build, operations, and analyses from spectrographs and cameras that obtain spectra and images from other worlds. This work involves collaborations between scientists, engineers, and project managers and between NASA and external partners. And our instruments cover a broad swath of the electromagnetic spectrum, from UV-raman instruments that probe the mineralogy and organic composition of surfaces to sub-mm instruments that probe the presence of specific volatile molecules. Historically, our greatest strength has been in the infrared, where we have led the development of instruments on board multiple missions including Voyager, Cassini, LandSat, New Horizons, and Osiris-Rex. A current example of our instrument work is the Osiris-Rex Visible-Infrared Spectrograph (OVIRS) instrument on board the Osiris-Rex mission that is currently at Asteroid Bennu.
We have leadership positions on many missions to our solar system and on missions that plan to explore worlds beyond. We have many team members involved in the analysis from the Curiosity, Mars Global Surveyor, Emirates Mars Mission, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, Mars2020, Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rovers, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. And we have team members involved in proposed or concept missions to Venus, Titan, and small bodies throughout the Solar System. Our team has a leadership role on the Lucy mission, which will fly by multiple Trojan Asteroids. And finally, we have multiple leadership roles on future astrophysics flagship missions – LUVOIR, HabEx, and Origins – that plan to characterize and search for life on planets around other stars. Below is a video on the work our team members have done to determine the “order of observations for finding life with an exoplanet with LUVOIR.”
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Researchers in the Planetary Systems Laboratory study a diversity of processes, on a wide variety of worlds. From atmospheric compositions and dynamics to surface composition and the distribution of organic materials, we explore planets and small bodies, and do so both in and beyond our Solar System. We do this primarily through spectroscopy – which analyzes different wavelengths of light to unveil the nature of these worlds.
Our branch has experience designing, building, operating, and analyzing data from spectrometers – the instruments that obtain these spectra. And by comparing spectra across these worlds, we are involved in many comparative planetology endeavors, that help us better understand all planets and the systems processes that they exhibit.
General inquiries about the scientific programs at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center may be directed to the Office of Public Affairs at 1.301.286.8955.