A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI
Assuming for a moment that life exists on some exoplanets, how might researchers detect it?
This is hardly a new question. More than ten years ago, competing teams of exo-scientists and engineers came up with proposals for a NASA flagship space observatory capable of identifying possible biosignatures on distant planets. No consensus was reached, however, and no mission was developed.
But early this year, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz announced the formation of four formal Science and Technology Definition Teams to analyze proposals for a grand space observatory for the 2030s. Two of them in particular would make possible the kind of super-high resolution viewing needed to understand the essential characteristics of exoplanets. As now conceived, that would include a capability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres that are associated with living things.
These two exo-friendly missions are the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared (LUVOIR) Surveyor and the Habitable Exoplanet (HabEx) Imaging Mission. Both would be on the scale of, and in the tradition of, scientifically and technically ground-breaking space observatories such as the Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch ...