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Planet-hunting space telescope wins vote of support

Telescope with starshade
An artist’s conception shows a planet-hunting space telescope accompanied by an umbrella-like starshade that blocks the glare of the planet’s parent star. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

NASA should add a large, technologically advanced space telescope to its lineup to capture direct images of Earthlike planets beyond our solar system, astronomers say in a congressionally mandated report issued today.

The report, published under the aegis of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, also calls on the National Science Foundation to invest in the next-generation Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The GMT is being built in Chile, with completion set for 2025. The TMT is also due to go into service in the mid-2020s, although the current plan to build it on the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano has run into controversy.

Authors of the report, led by Harvard’s David Charbonneau and Ohio State University’s B. Scott Gaudi, voiced support for two space telescopes already in the works — NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST. They also said NASA’s recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, would provide valuable information about Earth-size exoplanets as well.

But the report makes clear that the search for alien planets will have to focus down on direct images of planets, as well as detailed analysis of exoplanet atmospheres, in order to address questions about the existence of life beyond our solar system.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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