To search for habitable exoplanets will need a new large telescope that will be ready in 2040: finding them is the new priority of astronomers
Every ten years American scientists and astrophysicists participate in a survey conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It's a very important time, because the priorities and research directions in astronomy for the coming decade are decided. The goals have always been ambitious, but those of 2020 are perhaps more so: to find new habitable worlds similar to Earth.
Where does the search for new planets start
In the past decade, enormous strides have been made in exploring the universe: we've discovered gravitational waves, seen exoplanets and a black hole, and detected the presence of heavy elements created by the collision of two neutron stars. Scientists have checked almost all the boxes of the objectives decided ten years ago.
The search for a new habitable world starts from here, and from the 4000 exoplanets outside the Solar System but inside the Milky Way: recently it has even intercepted the first exoplanet that is not in our galaxy. But of none of these planets we know the most important information: can there be life?
What instruments are needed
To explore our galaxy and find new habitable worlds we need huge space missions. You definitely need a new large ground-based telescope: a high-contrast instrument that can observe in the infrared, optical, and ultraviolet. It would be comparable in scale to the Hubble Space Telescope and could be launched in 2040 to aid in the search for signatures of life on some 25 potentially habitable exoplanets. The estimated cost for this mission is $11 billion.
Combined observational work from the ground and space is also needed. It is necessary to understand how galaxies, black holes and neutron stars formed, and to do that scientists will need to delve deeper into the study of gravitational waves, "ripples" in space-time that could reveal what happened just after the Big Bang.
"Discovering some kind of life on another planet will completely change our place in the universe: the Earth will be placed in a community of worlds," the survey authors said. "The next few decades will set humanity on a path to determine whether we are alone."