NASA is considering four possible concepts for a future space exploration mission to be launched in the 2030s, according to Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division.
One project is focused on the development of a “direct imaging” telescope, allowing close investigation of exoplanets. The three other projects are telescopes similar to the Hubble Telescope, but much more powerful.
The four blueprints were detailed in NASA’s 2013 Astrophysics Roadmap, "Enduring Quests, Daring Visions: NASA Astrophysics in the Next Three Decades."
The “direct imaging” project, known as the habitable exoplanet imager mission or simply "HabEx," aims to build a planetary telescope that could allow scientists to discover atmosphere and other signs of life on exoplanets of all types in various solar systems.
The second project is a telescope that has a 12 meter-wide primary mirror, five times larger than that of the Hubble Telescope. While scientists proposed several possible options on the role of such a device, the most widely accepted concept is called LUVOIR (Large Ultraviolet Visible Infrared).
"LUVOIR could study the formation of stars and planets in our galaxy, map the evolution of galaxies, illuminate the birth of the first stars in the universe and probe into black hole environments," Aki Roberge, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said to Space.com.
Roberge noted that LUVOIR would have some overlaps with HabEx, as it could identify signs of life on distant planets, but would have a “broader range of exoplanet observations.”
A next-generation far-infrared space telescope, dubbed Far-IR, is the fourth of the proposed projects. It would capture light in the far-infrared range, allowing it to scrutinize distant cosmic objects, including stars, at all life cycle stages. In the process, scientists could determine the composition of space bodies and where their components originate.
"If you don't do things in the infrared, you're missing half the picture, effectively," Kartik Sheth, a NASA astrophysics division program scientist said to Space.com.
The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council assembles a committee every ten years to prioritize the needs of space exploration. It normally releases a report containing recommendations for the following decade.