Report Names Finding Earth-Twin Exoplanet Among Top Astronomical Priorities For 2020s
A new report by academics on what they feel are the “key scientific challenges for astronomy and astrophysics in the next decade” says that finding an Earthlike planet is among the most important, and the US space agency NASA is going to need a big new space telescope for the job.
Titled “Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s,” the report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is a once-in-a-decade look forward in an attempt to lay out research - and spending - priorities for US lawmakers in the coming years.
The latest report, released on November 4, names three areas of inquiry: finding a habitable, Earthlike world; answering key fundamental questions about so-called dark matter and dark energy; and the origin and evolution of galaxies using new electromagnetic observation tools.
So far, humans have found about 4,500 planets beyond our own solar system, but most of them are so-called “hot Jupiters,” or massive gas giants that orbit extremely close to their parent star. Spotting a rocky, Earthlike planet a tiny fraction of the size of a Jupiter-like planet poses a daunting challenge, and we have found only about 160 of them.
Fiona Harrison, a Caltech astrophysicist who co-chaired the academic committee behind the report, told NPR on Thursday that "The most amazing scientific opportunity ahead of us in the coming decades is the possibility that we can find life on another planet orbiting a star in our galactic neighborhood."
However, with the 31-year-old Hubble Space Telescope steadily aging, NASA is going to need a newer, bigger one in order to carry this research to the next level. It’s going to have to have infrared, optical and ultraviolet sensors, as well as a coronagraph that can block out a star’s direct light in order to see dimmer objects next to it, according to Axios.
The catch? Some of those technologies don’t even exist yet; inventing them are among the tasks that lay ahead. Such a device might cost $11 billion, the outlet noted. Such technology would theoretically be able to spot elements in a distant rocky planet’s atmosphere that we find in our own, like oxygen, nitrogen and carbon, that are necessary to support life.
The James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched next month, will offer a marked improvement to the Hubble’s capabilities, but it will be posted at Earth’s L2 Lagrangian Point, far from the orbital spot the Hubble occupies.
As of November 2021, no planet other than Earth has ever been found to be capable of supporting life.