Exoplanets in Our Backyard:
Solar System and Exoplanet Synergies on Planetary Formation, Evolution, and Habitability

Exoplanets in Our Backyard: Solar System and Exoplanet Synergies on Planetary Formation, Evolution, and Habitability was born out of a recognition of the value and potential of interdisciplinary, cross-divisional exoplanet and solar system research, and to encourage and grow the community of researchers working at this intersection. This first-ever inter-Analysis-Group (AG) meeting — organized by members of the Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG), Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG), and Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG) — successfully brought together solar system and exoplanetary scientists from different backgrounds and NASA divisions, fostered communication between scientists whose paths had never crossed at a conference before, and spurred new collaborations. The meeting was held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, on February 5–7, 2020, immediately following the OPAG meeting hosted at the same location. Including online participants, the meeting was attended by approximately 120 scientists. A post-meeting survey indicated that 100% of respondents were interested in attending a follow-on conference. We hope the success of this meeting will be capitalized upon and its momentum carried forward to promote fruitful scientific and programmatic discussion, partnerships, and research going forward.

The meeting opened with three overview talks on inner solar system planets, outer solar system planets, and exoplanets. The first morning of the meeting also featured a NASA Town Hall with representative NASA leadership (Drs. Lori Glaze and Douglas Hudgins) discussing future NASA directions and fielding questions. To promote discourse on the interplay of planetary processes and phenomena rather than on singular planetary bodies, the bulk of the meeting was structured into six major scientific sessions on selected processes and themes rather than individual targets:  Formation and Evolution of Planets, Interior and Surface Processes, Planetary Atmospheres Thick and Thin, Star-Planet Interactions, Habitability and Astrobiology Near and Far, and Missions. Each session featured four talks, and at the end of the series of talks, all four speakers came to the stage for a mini-panel during which questions were taken and discussion was had. This novel format, compared to the traditional session format, had the advantage of promoting extended dialog between panelists and the audience and was reviewed favorably in the post-meeting survey, with approximately 70% of respondents rating it better than the standard meeting structure. The evening of the meeting’s first day featured a lively public talk by Emily Lakdawalla, given in front of a massive IMAX screen at Space Center Houston to an audience of scientists, community members, and teachers from a concurrent co-located conference. The afternoon of the second day of the meeting featured a participant-led “Unconference” session. Unconference discussion topics were suggested and voted on by meeting attendees, and the selected topics were exomoons, the importance of exoplanet ages, ethics/policy/diversity, and the question of how exoplanets can help us better understand solar system planets (and vice versa). The second day concluded with a fruitful poster session preceded by minute-long flash talks. The last day of the meeting wrapped up with a final discussion/findings working lunch.

Findings from the meeting have been submitted to NASA, and a white paper discussing the meeting will be submitted to the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey. In summary, the findings included:

  • Cross-divisional and cross-AG cooperation was vital to the meeting’s success and will be for future interdisciplinary meetings.
  • Enhanced communication between the planetary and exoplanetary communities is essential to continued scientific progress in both disciplines.
  • The community supports the development of opportunities for participation of exoplanet scientists in heliophysics, Earth, and solar system exploration missions, and the corresponding participation of solar system, Earth, and heliophysics scientists in exoplanet-relevant missions.
  • Students and early-career researchers were essential to the success of the meeting, representing 40% of submitted abstracts, and the development of the interdisciplinary student/early career community should continue to be fostered.
  • Specific avenues for research were identified related to laboratory work, modeling efforts, and better understanding planetary host stars.

In conclusion, Exoplanets in our Backyard was a successful meeting of scientists from across NASA divisions. The organizing committee thanks all attendees and organizations that contributed to its success, particularly the generous funding from both NASA’s Planetary Science Division and the Astrophysics Division’s Exoplanets Exploration Office, which allowed us to fund travel grants for 26 students and early career scientists.

— Text provided by Giada Arney and Noam Izenberg