- the nature of life in the universe and what kinds of life may exist beyond Earth;
- the solar system, both scientifically and in preparation for human exploration; and
- the Sun and Earth, changes in the Earth-Sun system, and the consequences of the Earth-Sun relationship for life on Earth.
The Science Mission Directorate also sponsors research that both enables, and is enabled by, NASA's exploration activities. The SMD portfolio is contributing to NASA’s achievement of the Vision for Space Exploration by striving to:
- Understand the history of Mars and the formation of the solar system. By understanding the formation of diverse terrestrial planets (with atmospheres) in the solar system, researchers learn more about Earth’s future and the most promising opportunities for habitation beyond our planet. For example, differences in the impacts of collisional processes on Earth, the Moon, and Mars can provide clues about differences in origin and evolution of each of these bodies.
- Search for Earth-like planets and habitable environments around other stars. SMD pursues multiple research strategies with the goal of developing effective astronomically-detectable signatures of biological processes. The study of the Earth-Sun system may help researchers identify atmospheric biosignatures that distinguish Earth-like (and potentially habitable) planets around nearby stars. An understanding of the origin of life and the time evolution of the atmosphere on Earth may reveal likely signatures of life on extrasolar planets.
- Explore the solar system for scientific purposes while supporting safe robotic and human exploration of space. For example, large-scale coronal mass ejections from the Sun can cause potentially lethal consequences for improperly shielded human flight systems, as well as some types of robotic systems. SMD’s pursuit of interdisciplinary scientific research focus areas will help predict potentially harmful conditions in space and protect NASA’s robotic and human explorers.