NASA should begin developing a mission that can tell us whether life in the near galaxy is abundant, rare or essentially absent, The National Academy of Sciences recommended yesterday.
The call for a next Grand Observatory telescope with this ambitious goal represents the first time that the Academy, in its Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics, has given top priority to the science of exoplanets and the search for life far beyond Earth.
The long-awaited NAS survey did not select a single mission concept, although several NASA-commissioned studies were extensively researched and assembled for the Decadal over the past four years.
Rather, they set the science goal of giving an answer – as complete as possible – to the eternally-asked question of whether life exists solely on Earth or can be found on the billions of other planets we now know orbit their own suns.
Decadal steering committee co-chair Robert Kennicutt Jr., a professor at University of Arizona and Texas A & M University, said that a flood of discoveries and astronomical and technological advances in recent decades made clear that the time for such a mission had come.
“We’re laying down a marker here,” Kennicutt said in a press conference. “We think that progress in this field has taken us to the point that within the planning horizon of this survey, we can really contemplate imaging Earth-like planets in their habitable zones around other stars and spectroscopically studying them for atmospheric composition, perhaps including biomarkers. with the ultimate goal of answering one of the most profound questions: Are we alone in the universe?”
The proposed mission, he said, would as a result have the transformative scientific power of the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch next month. It would change the way that scientists and citizens see the world.
But the road to an actual mission will be long and definitely uphill.… Read more