In early August, experts from various fields gathered at Caltech University to brainstorm about a game-changing space telescope called the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO).
This isn’t just any telescope; it’s planned to be the successor to the James Webb Space Telescope and aims to look for signs of life on planets beyond our solar system, known as exoplanets.
If all goes as planned, the HWO could be launched into space as early as 2040.
The main goal of HWO is to study these distant planets, known as exoplanets, by blocking out the blinding light of their stars.
To achieve this, researchers are considering two primary methods: an internal “coronagraph,” which is like a small mask inside the telescope, and an external “starshade,” a large sunflower-shaped structure that unfolds in space to block starlight.
These tools would enable the telescope to look closely at a planet’s atmosphere for signs of life, such as certain types of gases that might only be present if living organisms are also there.
The concept of finding life on other planets has long fascinated scientists and ordinary people alike.
Nick Siegler from NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program sums it up well, saying that while we might not find “little green men,” we could find chemicals like oxygen or methane that might hint at life. But finding these so-called “biosignatures” is a huge technological challenge.
The starlight from these distant suns is much brighter than the light reflecting off the planets, making it difficult to see them.
Before HWO can be built, a lot of technological groundwork has to be laid. For one, the team needs to refine the coronagraph technology to block out the starlight effectively.
This is important because our own sun outshines Earth by a factor of 10 billion, making it incredibly challenging to spot similar planets around other stars. Scientists are also working on deformable mirrors that can change shape to block out unwanted light more effectively.
To prepare for the challenges of the HWO, a different telescope called the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is slated for launch by 2027.
This telescope will serve as a stepping stone, testing out some of the new technologies that could eventually be used in HWO. It will be a critical tool in helping astronomers refine their techniques for studying exoplanets and possibly finding signs of life.
Meanwhile, other tools like the Keck Planet Finder are helping scientists find Earth-like planets to study.
By the time HWO is ready for launch, researchers hope to have a list of at least 25 Earth-like planets for closer examination.
Despite the daunting technological and scientific hurdles, the experts are excited and optimistic. Laurie Leshin, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sees it as a big but exciting challenge that teams will tackle collaboratively.
In summary, the HWO aims to revolutionize our search for life beyond Earth. Though the project faces enormous challenges, the collaborative efforts of experts across various fields may make it possible to answer one of humanity’s most enduring questions:
Are we alone in the universe?
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