Scouring the cosmos for evidence of e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ life is going to be a major priority in the coming decades.
On December 18th of this year, the James Webb Space Telescope will finally be launched.
Capable of peering across the cosmos and, among other things, determining the potential habitability of planets around distant stars, it will be the most sophisticated observation platform ever launched into space and will bring with it an exciting new era of astronomical discovery.
If it succeeds, however, what will be next ? Where do we go from there ?
This month saw the release of a major new report entitled the \’Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s\’ – a once-per-decade release that aims to establish astronomy\’s top priorities while also seeking to muster financial support from federal policy makers.
To facilitate the continued search for potentially habitable e̳x̳t̳r̳a̳t̳e̳r̳r̳e̳s̳t̳r̳i̳a̳l̳ worlds, the report outlines what is known as the \’Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program\’ – a $1.2 billion initiative designed to fundamentally change the way NASA develops and launches major astronomy projects by investing in the technologies needed to reduce the cost and risk of such platforms and thus making them quicker and easier to build and launch.
One such observatory will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope – a much larger and more sophisticated orbital platform costing in the region of $11 billion.
While it won\’t begin development until the end of this decade and might not even be launched until the mid-2040s, this super advanced space telescope will be capable of observing extrasolar planets in incredible detail – assisting astronomers in finding the telltale signs of a̳l̳i̳e̳n̳ life.
“This report sets an ambitious, inspirational, and aspirational vision for the coming decade of astronomy and astrophysics,” said committee co-chair Fiona Harrison.
“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.”