Washington, September 4 : NASA has announced the new Carl Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowships in Exoplanet Exploration, created to inspire the next generation of explorers seeking to learn more about planets, and possibly extraterrestrial life, around other stars.
Planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, are being discovered at a staggering pace, with more than 300 currently known.
Decades ago, long before any exoplanets had been found, the late Carl Sagan imagined such worlds, and pioneered the scientific pursuit of life that might exist on them.
Sagan was an astronomer and a highly successful science communicator.
NASA's new Sagan fellowships will allow talented young scientists to tread the path laid out by Sagan. The program will award stipends of approximately 60,000 dollars per year, for a period of up to three years, to selected postdoctoral scientists.
Topics can range from techniques for detecting the glow of a dim planet in the blinding glare of its host star, to searching for the crucial ingredients of life in other planetary systems.
"We are investing in our nation's best and brightest in an emerging field that is tremendously inspiring to the public," said Jon Morse, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The Sagan Fellowship will join NASA's new Einstein Postdoctoral Fellowship in Physics of the Cosmos and the Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cosmic Origins.
All three fellowships represent a new theme-based approach, in which fellows will focus on compelling scientific questions, such as "are there Earth-like planets orbiting other stars?"
Recently, NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have made landmark observations of hot, Jupiter-like planets orbiting other stars.
The telescopes detected methane and water in the planets' atmospheres - the same molecules that might serve as tracers of life if discovered around smaller, rocky planets in the future.
"Only a select few scientists carry the insight, vision and persistence to open entire new vistas on the cosmos," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
"We know about Einstein. We know about Hubble. Add to this list Carl Sagan, who empowered us all - scientists as well as the public - to see planets not simply as cosmic objects but as worlds of their own that could harbor life," he added.
NASA's Kepler mission, which Sagan championed in his last years, will launch next year and will survey hundreds of thousands of nearby stars for Earth-like worlds, some of which are likely to orbit within the star's water-friendly "habitable zone" favorable for life as we know it.