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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.

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Similarly, it's now time to begin to understand the nature of exoplanets using the same tools – chemical fingerprints captured in light as it passes through or is reflected from an exoplanet's atmosphere.

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Without these measurements, "studying the constitution of stars or planets is virtually impossible," Dr. Marcy says.

To get these measurements, however, planet hunters were relying on the two observatories no longer on the books.

One project, the Space Interferometer Mission, was supposed to launch in 2005. But budget cuts forced the date to slip. The project, which was included in two surveys intended to set NASA's priorities for the coming decade, eventually disappeared from the 2010 Decadal Survey as the community faced even tighter budget constraints.

The fact that $600 million was spent to develop a project that never came to fruition is "the most embarrassing, humiliating thing I've seen in my life," says NASA's Dr. Traub.

The second major loss is the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF), whose demise can be traced to flip-flops at NASA over the observatory's design, say Marcy and others.

It, too, had a high priority in previous decadal surveys and was expected to be launched as early as 2015. But internal bickering among the planet-hunting community over which design to support prompted its removal from NASA's to-do list for this decade.

Faced with the collapse of two keystone projects, researchers are becoming more inventive.

For instance, one space telescope that remains on the books, the James Webb Space Telescope, in principle could perform spectra-gathering duties on nearby exoplanets – something no one envisioned at the time the telescope was planned, says Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

If less than 10 percent of the telescope's observing time is dedicated to exoplanets – and if the project adds a "star shade" flying in formation with the telescope to block light from an exoplanet's host star – studies suggest that the telescope could detect and characterize at least five Earth-like planets around nearby stars during five years of observing.

"This looks remarkably like what TPF-C would do," Dr. Mountain says, referring to one of the designs for the TPF.

Other researchers are busy thinking small.

Dr. Seager and Shawn Murphy, from the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., are working with undergraduate and graduate students at MIT to develop a fleet of shoebox-size orbiting telescopes that would focus their attention on one or two nearby stars each. NASA is supporting the project, whose first prototype could launch on a space-station resupply mission as early as late 2012.

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