For all the excitement surrounding the search for distant exoplanets in recent years, the 4,000-plus planets confirmed so far have been unseen actors on the cosmic stage. Except for a handful of very large bodies imaged by ground-based telescopes, virtually all exoplanets have been detected only when they briefly dim the light coming from their host stars or when their gravity causes the star to wobble in a distinctive way. Observing these patterns and using a few other methods, scientists can determine an exoplanet’s orbit, radius, mass, and sometimes density—but not much else. The planets remain, in the words of one researcher in the field, “small black shadows.”
Scientists want much more. They’d like to know in detail the chemical makeup of the planets’ atmospheres, whether liquid water might be present on their surfaces, and, ultimately, whether these worlds might be hospitable to life.
Answering those questions will require space telescopes that don’t yet exist. To determine what kinds of telescopes, NASA commissioned two major studies that have taken large teams of (mostly volunteer) scientists and engineers four years to complete. The results are now under review by the National Academy of Sciences, as part of its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics that will recommend government funding priorities for the 2030s. Past and current NASA mega-projects, from the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled for launch this year, have all gone through this same vetting process. Sometime this spring, the Decadal Survey is expected to wrap up its deliberations and make recommendations.
That puts four proposals in the running to become NASA’s next “Great Observatory” in space: an X-ray telescope called Lynx; the Origins Space Telescope for studying the early universe; and two telescopes devoted mostly, but not exclusively, to exoplanets. One is called HabEx, for Habitable Exoplanet Observatory. The other—the most ambitious, most complex, most expensive, and most revolutionary of all these concepts—is called LUVOIR, for Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor.… Read more