While Gaia is primarily an astrometry mission, the spacecraft will also be able to detect exoplanets the size of Saturn within 100 light-years of the Earth. (credit: ESA)

Future exoplanet missions:
NASA and the world (part 1)

by Philip Horzempa
Monday, October 8, 2012

The field of space-based exoplanet missions faces a mixed future. NASA and ESA have exciting plans for space telescopes that may fly in the next decade. However, the budget pressures that both agencies face are leading to new approaches by the community. These offer hope that the discoveries of the ongoing Kepler telescope will mark the beginning, and not the end, of space-based endeavors to find worlds circling distant suns. In addition to the efforts of these two agencies, there may be contributions by other agencies in Japan or even China.

One of the key challenges of this effort is not just the detection of extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, but of one type in particular, known as Earth analogs. These are Earth-sized worlds circling a Sun-like star in an Earth-like orbit. They represent the Holy Grail of exoplanet research. These exoplanets represent a new challenge for humanity. They are difficult to detect and to observe, but offer the excitement of the discovery of new worlds, akin to the great of age of discovery 500 years ago. We now have the means to find these new lands, but there is the question of this generation’s will to explore.

NASA has recently granted a five-year mission extension to the Kepler transit-detecting space telescope. This will allow it more time to detect the presence of Earth analogs that circle Sun-like stars. Kepler stares at a sector of our Milky Way galaxy located about 2,000 light-years away and is, essentially, gathering statistics on the presence and architectures of other solar systems. It has found an amazing variety. Its continuing mission will allow scientists to gauge the likelihood of finding worlds resembling the Earth. Carl Sagan, in the 1980’s, estimated that perhaps half of stars would harbor an “Earth.” Now, with data from Kepler, we can start to get a handle on the real picture.

Read more: The Space Review: Future exoplanet missions: NASA and the world (part 1).

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