Is our Solar System a cosmic rarity or a galactic commonplace? How do Earth-like planets form, and what determines if they are habitable? Is there life on other worlds?
To answer such significant questions, NASA needs to step up its game, according to a new congressionally mandated report.
Authored by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the document calls on the U.S. space program to develop an advanced telescope to better study exoplanets.
Researchers have already detected more than 100 potential exoplanets—globes that circle a star other than the Sun—including one orbiting the fourth-closest star to our Solar System (about 8.1 light years away from Earth).
But that’s not enough for NASEM, the collective scientific national academy of the United States.
“Our current knowledge of the range of characteristics of planets outside the Solar System is substantially incomplete,” the committee said in a news release outlining two “overarching” goals:
- To understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems as products of star formation and characterize the diversity of their architectures, composition, and environments
- To learn enough about exoplanets to identify potentially habitable environments and search for scientific evidence of life on worlds orbiting other stars
“A holistic approach to studying habitability in exoplanets, using both theory and observations, will ultimately be required to search for evidence of past and present life elsewhere in the universe,” NASEM said.
That’s easier said than done, though.
Developing an advanced space telescope—one with instruments like a coronagraph or starshade, as suggested by the report—is pricey and time consuming, and won’t provide substantial results for years.
But the nonprofit group is determined to dig deeper and make contact, no matter the cost (which it hopes the National Science Foundation will help cover).
“While missions like Kepler spacecraft have characterized a remarkable population of planets relatively close to their stars, our knowledge of worlds in the outer reaches of the universe is woefully lacking,” the National Academies said.
New tools, like the future Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), are “requirements for progress.” The authors also want NASA to make the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) available to astronomers for studying exoplanets.
This report, as Gizmodo pointed out, could be the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s golden ticket to government funding.
The study of exoplanets has seen remarkable discoveries in the past decade, including 15 new orbs that could be home to alien life and so-called “light-fingerprints” that help astronomers ID the far-off worlds. Find out more here.
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