Report calls for new telescope to search for alien planets

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The National Research Council is calling for an infrared space telescope as the top priority for NASA astrophysicists over the next ten years.

The independent panel says projects should be focused on the origins of the universe, the discovery of exoplanets and the fundamental physics of the cosmos - all of which would benefit from such a telescope.

What the report dubs the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) would help settle fundamental questions about the nature of gravity and dark energy. 

It would examine how the first stars, galaxies, and black holes formed, and search for the closest habitable Earth-like planets beyond the solar system. 

For large-scale, ground-based research initiatives, the Council says the top priority should be a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a wide-field optical survey telescope that would observe more than half the sky every four nights, studying dark energy, supernovae, and phenomena that change over time.

"Powerful new ways to observe the universe and bold ideas to understand it have created scientific opportunities without precedent," said Professor Roger Blandford of Stanford University, chair of the committee that wrote the report. 

"The program of research that we recommend will optimize the science return for future ground-based projects and space missions in a time of constrained budgets and limited resources."
 
Along with WFIRST, other priorities include expanding the Explorer program, which supports small- and medium-sized missions that provide high scientific returns; the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which could enable detection of long gravitational waves or 'ripples in space-time'; and the International X-Ray Observatory, which would study hot gas associated with stars, galaxies, and black holes.

In tune with these straitened times, the survey is the first from the Council to take into account budgets as well as aspirations, and to look at technical readiness and likely schedules.
 
The Council says it represents a cohesive plan with realistic budgetary scenarios, with ranges based on current projected budgets for NASA, NSF, and the US Department of Energy - the agencies largely responsible for funding and implementing the research activities. 
 
The report is available here.