Modern telescopes are discovering planets around other stars, and now a $340,000 grant from NASA will allow a Northern Illinois biologist to use them to search for life on exoplanets

Microbiology Professor Wesley Swingley calls himself a “consummate space nerd.”

“I’m obsessed with space and I’ve always liked space, and getting into biology in graduate school, I was really interested in looking at the possibility of life on Mars and things like that, so it was a good way to link my two greatest hobbies,” he said.

Swingley is about to embark on a two-year project: leading a team of scientists interested in discovering which exoplanets — or, distant plantets that orbit stars outside our solar system — might exhibit signs of life.

NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory team hopes to explore exoplanet atmospheres. Information from Swingley’s study will be used to evaluate potential signs of life.

“A lot of NASA people are really wanting to look at what are the signs of life on these planets, and what are the things we might learn from life on Earth,” he said.

The project will allow Professor Swingley to continue work he started years ago on specific microbes, and how they’ve evolved and adapted to their environment on Earth and perhaps other planets.

Astrobiology is “the study of life on planets or moons outside of Earth, and it’s become of interest because it uses light that is really low energy, compared to most organisms on earth to produce oxygen,” Swingley said.

He admits that, even if his research reveals oxygen in the atmospher of an exoplanet, it doesn’t necessarily mean life exists there.

Part of the project will focus on setting limits on the type and amount of light energy that life needs to convert water to oxygen.

Two NIU grad students will also be involved in the research. Swingley hopes the project gets more students interested in space, to expand their interests in biology.