A report requested by Congress has recommended that NASA should look into building a new space telescope to look for Earth-like exoplanets.
The Exoplanet Science Strategy report released yesterday, sponsored by NASA, comes from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. It highlights how the field of exoplanet research has progressed rapidly – and we are now on the cusp of answering some grand questions about the universe.
This includes answering “whether our Solar System is a rare phenomenon or if life exists on planets other than Earth,” a statement from the National Academies said. To do this, they recommend that NASA should lead “a large direct imaging mission – an advanced space telescope – capable of studying Earth-like exoplanets orbiting stars similar to the Sun.”
These reports are not just fanciful ideas – they can dictate NASA policy going forward, as the agency can use them to request funding from Congress. In the 2010 Decadal Survey, for example, the National Academies placed the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as a high priority, which recently avoided being scrapped, and could help hunt for other worlds.
Exoplanet science has certainly come a long way in the past decade. Thanks to the Kepler telescope, launched in 2009, we’ve found thousands of worlds outside the Solar System. Now we want to study some of these worlds in closer detail.
The recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will help us find more, while advanced observatories like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will enable us to study these worlds more closely. But taking direct images of exoplanets could offer a whole new perspective.
The National Academies advises that NASA should look into using a coronagraph to make this possible. This would block out the light of a distant star, enabling us to better look at the planets in orbit. But actually seeing the planets is another matter owing to their distance. There are some proposals on the table for how this might be done.
There’s little doubt, though, that we now possess the means to answer some pretty profound questions about the universe. And one of those, the possibility of other life being out there, seems like a pretty worthy question to target.
“It is unknown whether this generation will be the first to learn that life is common throughout the galaxy, or the first to discern hints of a cosmic lonesomeness,” said the report. “What we do know is that we can be the first with the technological and scientific ability to answer the question, if we so choose.”