by Justin Crepp, University of Notre Dame
Each time a new star is born, so too are its planets. In 2014 we know that planet formation is a natural outcome of the star formation process, and most stars, if not all, have orbiting worlds. Many reside in the habitable zone, the temperate region surrounding a star in which water could exist in liquid form.
In 2034 I believe we will know the exact location – the galactic address – of all Earth-like planets within the vicinity of the Sun. These are our nearest neighbors. And with somewhat mild weather environments, some fraction of the rocky worlds that we discover could possess the ingredients for life.
The means to this leap forward in galactic understanding and discovery is an eight-meter telescope equipped with an advanced starlight suppression system called the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF). By 2034 I believe that NASA will have the TPF in space, directly imaging planets that are 10 billion times fainter than their parent stars. This enormous leap beyond 2014 capabilities will allow scientists to meaningfully search for the “biomarkers” that will distinguish life-sustaining planets from the rest.
Specifically, the TPF telescope will identify weather patterns, seasonal variations, and the presence of vast oceans and continents on these distant worlds. Incredibly, TPF will determine whether extrasolar Earths have atmospheres that show the telltale spectral signatures indicative of the presence of life.
Given that the technology required to take a picture of an Earth-like planet already exists, our ability to assess whether we are alone in the universe is limited not by creativity, computational power, or teamwork, but instead sufficient financial support.
In 2014 we sit on the verge of answering age-old questions regarding our origins, and providing the first sense of galactic context for the existence of mankind. In 2034, with support from leaders in Congress and robust funding for NASA and the National Science Foundation, we will finally be uncovering the truth about what exists in our galaxy.
Justin Crepp, an astrophysicist, is the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame. He is the co-discoverer of more than 80 extrasolar planets. He is currently building a precision spectrometer that will detect Earth-like planets orbiting in the habitable zone of the closest and lowest-mass stars in the galaxy: the M-dwarfs. Dr. Crepp’s work has been supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation. He is a recipient of a 2013 NASA Early Career Award.