Alien planet research should be a NASA priority, Congressional report advises

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Sep 7, 2018

Researchers tasked by Congress to come up with a strategy for how the U.S. will channel its space funding in coming years have returned an early verdict, and it's one that has us wondering just what the men in black coats might already know that we don’t.

Okay, okay — that’s a little hyperbolic. But the preliminary findings of the Congress-mandated, NASA-directed “Exoplanet Science Strategy” report do advise the government to channel new funding for NASA and a host of cooperating agencies to significantly increase their efforts to locate planets, or exoplanets, that orbit distant stars — with an emphasis on detecting habitable environments.

That’s language that’s taken straight from the study’s list of goals, which seek to “understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems as products of the process of star formation,” and to “learn enough about the properties of exoplanets to identify potentially habitable environments and their frequency, and connect these environments to the planetary systems in which they reside.”

The pre-published findings in the 188-page report offer a slew of ambitious suggestions on how Congress should appropriate space money, breaking down the hunt for extraterrestrial zones into two complementing strategies: developing a new breed of advanced space telescope, and backing the next wave of telescopes to be erected on good old terra firma.

“In the near term, temperate rocky planets orbiting the closest small stars…can be studied with facilities under construction,” including the Giant Magellan Telescope (already under construction in Chile) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (tentatively proposed for future construction in Hawaii). Among other capabilities, the new observatories would be able to more accurately detect telltale molecular signatures of life-supporting elements in distant atmospheres, along with their ratios.

As for getting outside Earth’s orbit to canvass the galaxy for more distant signs of life and livability, there’s really only one known way: “The requirements to pursue an Earth-Sun analogue imply an imager in space,” the report states. “…NASA should lead a large strategic direct imaging mission capable of measuring the reflected-light spectra of temperate terrestrial planets orbiting Sun-like stars.”

As with so many studies that gauge all the endless possibilities of how the government could best spend money, this one amounts to learned advice. But if Congress should decide to ramp up the search for extraterrestrial life zones similar to our own, we — and perhaps even our newfound alien pals — can look back at this report and agree that it provided the blueprint.