Astronomers’ checklist to go beyond the solar system

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The International Astronomical Union has added a new to-do list for astronomers

Planetary scientists have up their ambitions as the quest for life in space intensifies.

The International Astronomical Union has added a new to-do list for astronomers, from identifying exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) to developing technologies to find exoplanets.

At the Geneva, Switzerland meeting of the IAU, the session focused on making astrophysics happen at a higher scale.

Any breakthrough would, in time, lead to more space missions such as the Hubble space telescope.

This will take the form of a new era of “telescope” technology designed for smaller, cheaper telescopes to increase the scope of the observations they can do.

Reaching these new technological goals for galaxy surveys will require major advances in image resolution, and in sharpening the wavelength-sensitive detectors to detect faint light emitted by even the smallest planets.

But the most important technology development at the meeting was the authority’s acknowledgement that planetary observation should be a priority of an exoplanet census.

Like President Barack Obama said in the speech of Declaration of Independence:

“We are not a nation that stands still; we’re a nation that moves forward.”

Global context

The IAU meeting also discussed the global context in which these ambitious planetary exploration goals could be realised.

The conversation focused on how the physics and astronomy world, including astronomical data collection bodies such as the European Southern Observatory, should expand their technological capabilities and prepare for the transition to a multi-planetary era in astronomy.

During his IAU speech, Thomas Zurbuchen, chief scientist at the US National Science Foundation, said he wanted to see the contributions of physics include those of molecular biology, brain science and developmental biology into astronomical research.

This work could show an “infinite variety of new frontiers and realms” that would be readily accessible through the advances in some of these areas, said Dr Zurbuchen.

What does the new to-do list look like?

1. Identify 50 exoplanets for a Planetary Assessment

An exoplanet is an orbiting planet that orbits another planet. As alien worlds, exoplanets vary from those that are only 20 or 30 light years away to ones that are hundreds of times the size of Earth or more. In truth, there are far more exoplanets than exoplanets.

The US and the European Space Agency are having enormous success gathering Earth-like worlds for precise studies. Each study provides fundamental knowledge of what needs to be studied about a planetary system.

The IAU has added a new list of mission metrics to the roadmap for exoplanet study. In it, exoplanet scientists aim to identify 50 planets at least 1.5 times the size of Earth to establish that more than 1,000 planets beyond the Milky Way would fit.

The IAU also calls for the International Astronomical Union to work with agencies to develop technical and infrastructure to support the mission and rapid, near-term adoption by the field.

2. Develop the next generation of multi-planet astronomical imaging and Earth-like gas giants

Another new goal for planetary scientists is to observe and photograph rocky planets in the so-called exoplanet gas giant phase.

This phase lasts several tens of thousands of years and the closer the exoplanet is to its star, the less it reflects back to our observing telescopes.

In the next few years, there will be huge scientific interest in imaging worlds that are 500 times the size of Earth, and are more closely orbiting their stars.

One planet being investigated for its possible habitability is called Proxima b, the red dwarf star that lies outside the orbit of the earth.

The IAU’s new to-do list involves developing technologies capable of obtaining images and spectra of small and even rocky worlds.

No conditions of habitability have been determined for these worlds, but the rules of physics and astronomy suggest that these worlds likely have atmospheres and compositions conducive to life.

3. Engineer smaller, cheaper telescopes to probe exoplanets

A next-generation of space telescopes could go into development during the next four years and are expected to become operational around 2020.

Scientists have already drawn up timetables and budget plans for a new generation of telescopes that might be dedicated to the task of discovering exoplanets – a mission that could include an Earth-sized solar system world, potentially the first one discovered.

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