It’s sort of a high holiday for astronomers around the world. Every 10 years, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine releases something called the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics. It lays out the biggest priorities that astronomers ought to focus on for the following decade. The latest report, released Thursday and coming in at over 500 pages, makes plenty of recommendations, but there’s one that sticks out beyond the others: Find another planet that could host life.
How should we accomplish that? The report says NASA should build and launch an $11 billion space telescope with a 20-foot-long dish that can image distant planets outside the solar system, in infrared, optical light, and ultraviolet. This telescope would be able to spot objects 10 billion times dimmer than the stars they are orbiting. It could figure out whether there’s an atmosphere on those planets to keep any potential life warm and cozy.
It might even be able to determine whether life actually exists on those habitable worlds, by spotting signs of biological activity like methane concentrations.
This telescope would be something of a middle-ground compromise between two proposed concepts for new space telescopes: one called LUVOIR, which would be 50 feet long and probably cost $17 billion; and HabEx, which would be just 13 feet long and probably under $10 billion.
The report doesn’t recommend against either concept, but the message between the lines is that NASA should blend the two to have a better chance at finding Earth 2.0, without getting stuck building something impossible. The telescope would ideally be ready to launch by the 2040s.
The new space telescope could be just one of a slew of next-generation instruments sitting in orbit and studying the universe—at a time when astronomy is under threat by satellite mega-constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink. The report recommends starting what it calls the “Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program,” as a pipeline for greater investment and planning in space-based technologies.
Whether Congress will pony up the funding for a program like this is an entirely different question.