UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania – Christopher House, a professor of geosciences, will serve as director of the Consortium for Planetary and Exoplanetary Sciences and Technology (CPEST) in Penn State from July 1.
Founded in 2020, the consortium brings together scientists and engineers in Penn State to study how planets form, evolve and become habitable, and work to discover and potentially explore these worlds.
“CPEST was created to take advantage of the University’s outstanding strengths in exoplanets and astrobiology and to expand our research leadership in the emerging field of planetary systems science,” said Laura Weiss, senior vice president of research. “Penn State scientists and engineers are already active in global research, and the role of CPEST will strengthen collaboration between our faculty, enabling them to pursue additional opportunities.
House studied biogeochemistry, geobiology, the origins of life, and planetary science. He is the director of NASA’s Pennsylvania Space Grants Consortium and a former director of the Astrobiology Research Center.
He also serves as a research leader on NASA’s Mars Curiosity mission, run by the Southern California Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Several times a month, he leads the team in charge of planning the daily scientific tasks of the Mars rover on the Red Planet.
“This consortium is a huge opportunity for Penn State – with its own rich history of astrobiology – as a basis for further expanding our involvement in planetary science,” House said. “And this comes at a time when many exciting space missions are being developed and carried out.”
“I am very excited that Chris will lead CPEST,” said Sven Bilen, a professor of engineering design, electrical engineering and aerospace engineering. “I’ve worked with Chris for many years and I’ve always found him a strong advocate for space research at Penn State. He is particularly passionate about training the next generation of space scientists and engineers. This advocacy will position CPEST for success. “
House succeeds James Casting, a professor of geoscience at Evan Pu University and the first director of the consortium to retire after nearly 35 years at Penn State.
“Jim is a huge part of astrobiology,” House said. “His work on how planets change over time and sometimes move from inhabitable to uninhabited has played a huge fundamental role in our search for life in space. And he was crucial to uniting the people and starting this consortium in Penn State.
Casting received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and two master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan. He came to Penn State in 1988 and began a career in studying the habitability of the planet and assessing the habitable zones around the stars. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2018.
“Professor Casting’s influence on our understanding of exoplanets and habitability is hard to overestimate,” said Jason Wright, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics. He defined the “habitable zone”, one of the main concepts in astrobiology, and helped build the main bridge between exoplanetary astrophysics and the planetary science that CPEST covers. Penn State was lucky to have its own experience and expertise and its own vision that helped make CPEST a reality.
The consortium brings together researchers and students from the Eberly College of Science, the College of Engineering, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, the Institute for Materials Research and Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and provides an administrative home for planetary science.
It houses five centers: the Center for Astrobiology Research, the Center for Exoplanets and Habitats, the Penn State Alien Intelligence Center, the Center for Space Research Programs, and the Planetary Science Center.
The consortium is designed to enable interdisciplinary research and help scientists gain funding amid a recent boom in space exploration projects from private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin and NASA missions.
“I think Penn State has a stronger role to play with our current scientific and engineering expertise in topics that allow exciting space missions to be developed and executed,” House said. “It’s a very exciting time to explore space and for Penn State.”