By Daniel Apai
Includes interview with Nick Siegler and Shawn Domagal-Goldman
Over the weekend, at the Hilton on the San Diego Bay, a small group met to speak about the present and future of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration program. To someone not in the field of exoplanets the talks and debates may have resembled science fiction: giant space telescopes, rockets and spacewalks, hyper-precise measurements of stellar motion, search for alien life, exploration of volcanism on exoplanets, laser-combs, starshades, and other Earths across the Galaxy were just a few of the topics that were debated. The memorable images included cows illuminated by lasers in a Nevada desert. It was a fun meeting and a timely one, too.
The field of exoplanets is hotter than ever: we learned that planets are literally everywhere and that planets with sizes similar to Earth are the most common among the known planets. Many of the stars (probably 1 in 4) harbor about-earth-sized planets with stellar heating similar to Earth. Not only did we learn about the frequency of the planets, but also about their properties. New missions and instruments are being built and planned, conferences and school galore, and amazing discoveries are made almost weakly. The enthusiasm is palpable in the field; yet. we know that reaching our grand goal of finding extraterrestrial life is going to be anything but easy.
We can only find life if it produces a signature that is detectable from vast – literally astronomical – distances. Seen from space humans, trees, elephants, or even whales are undetectable and unremarkable, yet Earth would reveal its secret to an outside observer through the surprising abundance of a highly reactive gas, molecular oxygen. Oxygen is and has been produced by advanced photosynthetic organisms, first in the ocean and then on land. About 2.3 billion years ago oxygen has saturated the planet’s surface and rapidly accumulated in vast amounts in our atmosphere, From that point on Earth’s atmosphere became a glowing indicator of life for the entire Galaxy – at least, for civilizations that are slightly better in building telescopes than we are.
So, starting from the only example we have, NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration program is aiming to build a telescope that will look for oxygen or other similarly odd gases in other earth-like planets atmospheres as possible signatures of life.
In a perhaps unusual consensus, the exoplanet community is united behind the most important goal, surveying nearby exo-earths for biosignatures. Few other approaches to detecting extraterrestrial life seem feasible. Although the goal is clear, possible approaches and ideas are plenty: the abundance of proposed approaches stems from the fact that no telescope that exists today (or at least, accessible to astronomers) is capable enough to directly search for biosignatures in known exo-earths. Building one that will be up for the job is not going to be easy: in fact, right now, we do not know how good exactly that telescope would need to be, what capabilities it would have to have — and we don’t know how we would build it.
Guided by the vision of finding extraterrestrial life, astronomers, astrobiologists, technologists, engineers, project managers are all working together to come up with concrete plans for such telescopes. Our goal is to create at least two different designs for life-finding telescopes by 2019. The year is important, because in 2020 the astronomical community will issue a major report, the Decadal Survey. This study will set the strategy for NASA for 2020s and beyond and will determine whether planning and construction of such a telescope can begin in a few years or we need to wait another decade.
What the best telescope design is will depend on what questions we want to answer and on the properties of planets, too: our meeting in San Diego explored these issues as well as the technology development needed to build a telescope more ambitious than anything very built. For example, one possible telescope design would use a “starshade” – a giant (think fifty meters or hundred and fifty feet) flower-petal-shaped mask. The strange mask would fly tens of thousands of miles in front of the telescope and could, if positioned precisely, cancel out the light of the host star completely, revealing the faint planets. However, nothing like this has ever been flown in space or used in ground – so a Northrop-Grumman team of engineers is testing this idea in the night in a dark Nevada desert, shining bright a light to a telescope from miles away and covering the light with a small starshade mask in between. One night however, a cow, perhaps intrigued by the strange glowing flower in the desert, wandered into the light beam and photo-bombed the experiment, thus becoming part of the history of space exploration.
The San Diego meeting was exciting and fun: a lot of progress has been made recently, but much more needs to be done in the next three years to finalize plans for a space telescope that can look for life on other Earths
At the meeting I also grabbed the opportunity to interview two experts who approach this question from different angles: Dr. Nick Siegler, who is the Chief Technology of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program; and Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman, astrobiologist and biosignature-expert at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Several important studies of space telescope design and science questions will be carried out over the next year or two, pushing our technology and understanding toward the long-term goal. It will be exciting to see how this group of smart people figures out solutions to problems that were thought to be impossible to solve, and how it will overcome unexpected barriers, such as curious cows.