Astronomers Plan to Build a 40-Foot Orbital Telescope to Search for Alien Life

Thursday, 07 January 2016 - 10:07AM
Astrobiology
Astronomy
Alien Life
Thursday, 07 January 2016 - 10:07AM
Astronomers Plan to Build a 40-Foot Orbital Telescope to Search for Alien Life
With Hubble taking beautiful pictures out in space, and construction for the James Webb Space Telescope well underway, we've already made huge advancements in space telescope technology. But now, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is already looking forward to their next huge project: an 8-12 meter space telescope that would have the power to see Earth-like planets.

The telescope would be the biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built, with ten times the power of Hubble (one astronomer went so far as to call it "Hubble HD"). It will include several smaller mirrors that will unfold into a cohesive whole in orbit, as well as several scientific instruments that will take measurements across many different wavelengths, including visible, infrared, and ultraviolet. The James Webb Space Telescope, which has a 6.5 meter primary mirror, is scheduled to launch in 2018 and run for approximately ten years, so this project would take place in the 2030s.

Opening quote
"The road to [discovering] living worlds requires an eight to 12 meter space-based telescope," said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer who studies exoplanets at NASA's Ames Research Center, at the American Astronomical Society meeting this week (via Gizmodo). "This is what can consistently survey Sun-like stars within 30 parsecs."
Closing quote

30 parsecs amounts to approximately 100 light years, and is the distance we would need to survey in order to observe a few dozen Earth-sized exoplanets in their star's habitable zone. Hubble is an extremely powerful telescope, but even so, we can only directly image larger planets, which are likely to be gas giants. Rocky planets that could potentially hold life are necessarily smaller, and therefore more difficult to detect.

Opening quote
"With modern technology, we don't have the capability to image a solar system analog," Batalha said. "That's where we want to go."
Closing quote

In addition to searching for alien life, the telescope will study the formation of galaxies in order to draw conclusions about the evolution of matter in the universe. The researchers hope to discover the evolution of the lifecycle of the atom, starting with the Big Bang all the way up to the first appearance of bio-signatures.

Opening quote
"How and where does the lifecycle of atoms evolve?" said John O'Meara of Saint Michael's College. "How do we get to the oxygen you're breathing? To answer these questions, we need the last ten billion years of interactions of gas and galaxies."
Closing quote

As a result, the telescope is intended to answer two fundamental questions of humanity: are we alone in the universe, and how did we get here? 

Opening quote
"A story is unfolding," Batalha said. "We are on the verge of being able to find evidence of life beyond Earth. We have the ability to do it, and we know how to do it. But it's a multi-decade, generational effort."
Closing quote
Science
Space
Astrobiology
Astronomy
Alien Life

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