Space exploration: Will budget cuts stall search for other Earths?
Astronomers are on the cusp of new discoveries in the search for distant planets that could have life. But budget cuts are forcing this branch of space exploration to turn to smaller, less-ambitious projects.
The hunt for planets orbiting other stars and capable of harboring life has reached a crossroads.Skip to next paragraph
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Never has the young field of "exoplanet" research been so ripe with promise, its practitioners say, with dozens of new planet candidates emerging every year. But now, with scientists ready to take the next step and discern whether any of these planets might have the potential conditions for life, the rug has been pulled from beneath them.
Two orbiting observatories seen as crucial to taking the measure of exoplanets and their atmospheres in detail have been scrapped. Budget cuts are one reason, but infighting within the scientific community made those cuts easier, according to several accounts. It leaves exoplanet hunters seeking creative solutions, such as retrofitting one space telescope with a special shade or sending up shoebox-size mini-observatories to nibble away at the job.
But some in the field can't help but feel concern that their dreams of one day being heralded as discoverers of new solar systems that later generations will explore may be slipping away.
"We really want to be the first generation to find planets" like Earth, says Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. "Now, it's not clear to me anymore that it will."
Part of the frustration is born of the field's unbridled success in the face of initial, deep skepticism.
When Wesley Traub prepared to head for his first exoplanet meeting in Colorado in 1990 – five years before the first confirmed exoplanet discovery – "I didn't tell anybody I was going because I was embarrassed," he says. "This was something you didn't talk about then" in the company of other astrophysicists.
Now he is the chief scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's exoplanet exploration program, and with each passing month, fresh detections from dozens of research teams point to a Milky Way galaxy teeming with solar systems utterly unlike our own.
More discoveries are in the pipeline. NASA's Kepler mission has added at least 1,235 planet candidates to the list for confirmation.
While detecting new planets is important, astronomers add, the field has reached a point where it must begin to study the atmospheres of exo-planets and comb them for gases that signify the presence of life.
The study of stars was at a similar point a century ago, notes Geoff Marcy, a pioneer of planet-hunting at the University of California, Berkeley. At first, scientists simply fit stars into categories based on their color and intrinsic brightness. But eventually they began to use starlight to understand a star's chemical compositions, which gave clues about their stage of evolution.