Beyond Kepler: Direct Imaging of Earth-like Exoplanets
Dr. Ruslan Belikov, SSA
Is there another Earth out there? Is there life on it? People have been asking these questions for over two thousand years, and we finally stand on the verge of answering them. The Kepler space telescope has already revealed that many stars have planets close to Earth size in regions close to their habitable zones. The next natural step after Kepler is spectroscopic characterization of exo-Earths, which would tell us whether they possess an atmosphere, oxygen, liquid water, as well as other biomarkers. In order to do this, directly imaging an exo-Earth may be necessary (at least for Sun-like stars and small planets).
NASA is conducting studies of two flagship-class concepts designed to directly image potentially habitable planets, HabEx and LUVOIR, for possible launch in the 2030s. NASA is also developing the WFIRST flagship mission for launch in the 2020s designed to directly image large (non-habitable) planets. In addition, the unusual proximity of Alpha Centauri (the closest star system to the Sun) creates the opportunity to directly image a potentially habitable planet with a space telescope as small as ~30cm, if one exists around that star system. The Ames Coronagraph Experiment (ACE) group at NASA Ames been successfully maturing high contrast imaging technologies for the missions above, and has proposed a small mission called ACESat (Alpha Centauri Exoplanet Satellite), a 45cm space telescope capable of directly imaging potentially habitable planets around Alpha Centauri.
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