We know of thousands of planets in other star systems, including a few that are similar to Earth. But we’ve seen only a half-dozen or so. And even those appear as nothing more than tiny specks — they don’t tell us anything about the planets themselves.
But future space telescopes might show us hundreds of exoplanets. They wouldn’t reveal any features, but they should reveal the colors of the planets — a detail that would tell us a little about the nature of each world.
LUVOIR and HabEx are among several giant space telescopes that are under consideration. Right now, scientists and engineers are drafting detailed plans for both telescopes. They’re looking at main mirrors up to about 50 feet in diameter — about six times the size of the mirror in Hubble Space Telescope.
Both telescopes would look at a wide range of wavelengths, including some that are invisible to the human eye. These wavelengths can reveal important details about astronomical objects. In the case of an exoplanet, they can reveal surface temperature, the presence of an atmosphere, and what’s in the atmosphere — including molecules produced by living organisms.
The telescopes wouldn’t be limited to exoplanets. They’d also study the lives of stars, the structure of the universe, and much more.
The design studies will be completed next year. NASA will then decide whether to keep one of the projects going — perhaps leading to a launch in a couple of decades.
Script by Damond Benningfield