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NASA wants to launch a new space telescope to search for a second Earth

An artist's concept of the HabEx telescope
A visualization of HabEx, a space telescope with ultraviolet (UV), optical, and near-infrared (near-IR) imaging and spectroscopic capabilities. Gaudi et al.

With environmental catastrophes befalling Earth and an increasing population, there’s an argument that for humanity to survive, we’ll need to find a new planet. NASA has proposed a telescope to do just that: The Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) mission would search for a “second Earth” where humanity could eventually relocate.

“Our goal is to see if we can find a planet that is similar to Earth — one that can support life,” Professor Scott Gaudi, a researcher at Ohio State University, said in a statement. “While we’ve identified a number of planets outside our solar system, so far, none have conclusively been shown to have the elements necessary for habitability. The HabEx mission would be the next logical step in the search for planets similar to our Earth.”

The HabEx would be a space telescope, similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, but with a mirror much larger than Hubble’s at 4 meters (13 feet) wide compared to 2.4 meters wide. It would also be equipped with an origami-like sunshade, a 52-meter-wide disk (170.6 feet) that would be folded into a tight spiral for launch before being deployed into a flower shape. This shade would block light from nearby stars, allowing the telescope to detect dimmer light from more distant stars, allowing it to see deeper into space.

The project would have three aims. Firstly, it would look for nearby habitable planets. Secondly, it would map out nearby planetary systems and investigate the different sorts of planets that can be found within them. Thirdly, it would explore distant parts of the universe in the ultraviolet spectrum.

The proposal was presented at both the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco and at the SPIE Optical Engineering + Applications event in San Diego this year. It is one of four mission concepts that NASA is considering to take up the baton from Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Telescope as the “next Great Observatory.”

As part of its proposal, NASA includes a community-based Guest Observer program in which the capabilities of HabEx will be made available to citizen scientists and those outside of NASA who wish to use the telescope to answer pressing scientific questions.

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