For finding extraterrestrial life, NASA has bigger, bolder exoplanet-hunting telescopes

An artistic rendering of the proposed LUVOIR space telescope that can be used to directly image exoplanets.


A congressionally mandated report published today (Sept. 5) by the prime minister, science advisory group in the United States have discovered that NASA should concentrate on the exoplanet of the budget for research on large space – and ground-based telescopes.

The new National Academy of Sciences report feeds in a decadal priority setting of the system in the astronomy community that guides NASA’s long-term strategy.

“The really big message is that this is a very special moment in human history,” David Charbonneau, an astronomer at Harvard University and co-chairman of the committee behind the new report, told “People have wondered whether there is life on other planets for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, of years.” [13 Ways to Find Intelligent alien life]

If we choose to make the right investments, ” he continued, “We really should be able to learn the answer to that question in the next 20 years.”

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And according to a new report, these investments are clear, with seven priority areas mentioned, including the construction of a space telescope powerful enough to directly see exoplanets; the building of large telescopes on the ground; and the continuation of the development and launch process for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) space telescope.

“In this report, are they really double down on the great mission strategy,” Jessie Christiansen, who studies exoplanets at Caltech and NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute and was not involved in the new report, told “This incredibly large, expensive efforts, but they can achieve something we are excited about it,” she said — to find and to study small, rocky planets around stars like our own sun.

Because the report is focused on tools that could get started 15 or 20 years on the road, but briefly discusses the current projects, such as the recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which began collecting data in late July, and in the near-term projects, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), which is scheduled for a launch in 2021. The committee had the explicit support for these projects.

Astronomers have generally expressed support for Webb’s science goals, but this telescope has a reputation for being over budget and behind schedule. Christiansen to ensure that the new report focus on similarly ambitious projects could end up being a problem when they see the costs and the timeline of problems. Large projects such as Webb, she said, “just eat everyone’s lunch,” and their stumbles have encouraged a number of scientists to focus on smaller projects. But that is not the case for the new report of the authors.

“It’s really a bold strategy to say that we should put all our eggs in one basket,” Christiansen said, adding that, while the approach comes with potentially high rewards, it also comes with a potentially large risks. “If we’ve burned too many bridges with the previous missions, and it does not work, then we are a bit rudderless,” Christiansen said. She was surprised not more talk in the report about the small, relatively inexpensive satellites referred to as CubeSats, and how they can contribute to exoplanet science, although report leaders indicated during a press conference that these smaller missions would also be valuable.

But the committee behind the report, thinks that the large sticker prices on bold missions are worth the effort. “The cost of these telescopes and the commands that we’re talking about, although, significantly, certainly not outside the range of what we as a society can do,” B. Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at Ohio State University and co-chairman of the commission, told

These costly projects are ambitious space telescopes such as the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) and the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory that would each be powerful enough, to the small light of a planet from the powerful glare of the star. They would also make the financing of giant, ground-based telescopes, like the Thirty Meter Telescope (in Hawaii) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (in Chile).

With the emphasis on direct imaging was to Thayne Currie, an astronomer at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan are not involved in the new report, which focuses on the technique, which is currently very difficult. “In[Direct imaging] is intriguing, because seeing is believing,” he told “A lot of people, if you tell them that it is actually not directly detect many of the planets, it is a kind of a head-scratcher.”

Exoplanet detections have now the tendency to spot planets by the slight wobble their gravity on a star’s position (the so-called radial velocity method) or by the slight dip in the brightness of the star caused when a planet glides between the star and a telescope (the so-called transit method). In contrast, the report focuses on the detection methods that require the next level of technology — direct imaging and microlensing, which uses an optical trick to zoom in on remote places of the space and it will be possible with the WFIRST telescope, currently scheduled for launch in 2025.

Direct imaging also provides additional information about the planet itself, and what might happen on the surface. “Once you can see the planet, you can all kinds of interesting things, such as the study of its orbit, begin to understand, the composition, and maybe spot signs of the weather or the rotation, Pat McCarthy, vice president of operations of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which was not involved in the new report, told “It really opens up the world.” [10 Exoplanets That Could Host Alien Life]

Although the report emphasizes the appeal of the determination of the habitability and the search for life, it strives to balance these questions with others in connection with exoplanets more generally. “The committee took a very holistic approach to our care of an exoplanet strategy,” Gaudi said. “We do not believe that it is possible to go out and identifying life without understanding of the context of a certain planet.”

Although the report primarily focuses on the science, but also the addresses of the scientists behind exoplanet research, advocates for cross-disciplinary collaboration and support for research grants. The report also touches on the promotion of diversity and prevention of discrimination and harassment, although no concrete recommendations on these topics.

All told, the new report outlines a path to dramatically strengthen of planet studies in the next two decades, with potentially fatal consequences. “For the first time in human history, we can start now, if we choose to, when the answer to the question whether there is life on other planets,” Gaudi said.

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