Every ten years the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine publish the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, which outlines the most significant priorities that astronomers should focus on in the following decade. This time around, they're talking about finding the next Earth that could sustain life.
The 500-page report was released Thursday explaining that there are many things that scientists could address, but the one that sticks out is finding Earth 2.0. To do it, scientists have proposed that NASA fund a new massive telescope that can look at infrared, optical light, and ultraviolet to see distant planets outside of the solar system. In the past, scientists have been forced to use observations of planets passing in front of stars to indicate whether a planet is present.
The pitch is for a 20-foot telescope which could cost $11 billion. It's the middle ground from a proposal for a 50-foot dish at $17 billion and the 13-foot one that would come in under $10 billion. The hope is that the scope would be operational by the 2040s.
It's a dramatic shift in the focus of space that has been dominated by billionaires seeking to travel off of the planet themselves, not for science but for themselves. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is already working to fund his own private trips to Mars while Richard Bronson is taking people into the outermost layer of the Earth's atmosphere. Jeff Bezos is blasting people into orbit with his Blue Origin program.
The report doesn't indicate that the reason has anything to do with the destruction of the existing Earth, as it did in the film "Interstellar," where a dystopian Earth was both starving and suffocating the people living on it. The reason also doesn't have anything to do with locating more intelligent or advanced civilizations like "Contact."
"This report sets an ambitious, inspirational, and aspirational vision for the coming decade of astronomy and astrophysics," said Fiona Harrison, an astronomer and co-chair of Astro2020. "In changing how we plan for the most ambitious strategic space projects, we can develop a broad portfolio of missions to pursue visionary goals, such as searching for life on planets orbiting stars in our galactic neighborhood—and at the same time exploit the richness of 21st-century astrophysics through a panchromatic fleet."
"I believe this is the smartest, most executable and pragmatic Decadal Survey ever written," said chief scientist of the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii John O'Meara, a vocal champion of the LUVOIR concept. "The steering committee understood that we must redefine how we develop large missions so that we can realize this vision of new Great Observatories. They have brilliantly laid out how to achieve civilization-changing science in an uncertain world, and I hope NASA and other federal agencies embrace the spirit of the document."
Heidi Hammel, vice president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy told the Scientific American that there's a "new golden era of discovery. Might we actually find evidence for life on another planet? This report, true to its name, lays out robust pathways to answer this question, and we can be the generation that answers it!"