New NASA Mission Could Help Advance the Search for Habitable Planets

NASA could soon get a new spacecraft suggested by researchers from CU Boulder, that could investigate regions in deep space, beyond our Solar System, expected to host planets with dense atmospheres.

Astrophysicist Kevin France is the chief scientist of that mission development, dubbed Extreme-Ultraviolet Stellar Characterization for Atmospheric Physics and Evolution (ESCAPE). He is positive that it will provide the crucial survey work in humanity’s quest for extraterrestrial life.

“NASA and the entire astronomical community have made the search for signs of life on exoplanets a priority,” said France, who is also an assistant professor in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS). “We believe that detectable life outside the solar system probably relies on the presence of an atmosphere.”

Studying Faint Stars

This month, NASA gave France and his colleagues a significant approval to start the quest for habitable conditions making ESCAPE one of the two candidates rivaling to be the next satellite to take off as part of the space agency’s Explorers Program.

If chosen, the project, which would boast a budget of about $145 million, could offer a lot of scientific data for the cost.

“These promising proposals under the Explorers Program bring out some of the most creative, innovative ways to help uncover the secrets of the universe,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “From studying stars and planets outside our solar system to seeking answers to the largest cosmic mysteries, I look forward to the breakthrough science from these modest size missions.”

The suggested mission, a collaboration between LASP, JILA, and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) would not search for exoplanet atmospheres for starters, but it would observe distant stars.

Allison Youngblood, a research scientist at LASP, said that some stars wouldn’t be a good place for habitable planets. More precisely, stars that discharge a lot of high-energy radiation can take off the atmospheres away from orbiting planets.

“This high-energy radiation is absorbed in the highest layers of a planet’s atmosphere and regulates the escape of an atmosphere to space,” said Youngblood, part of France’s ESCAPE team. “We must measure the extreme ultraviolet radiation from exoplanet host stars to be able to say whether or not exoplanets can hang on to their atmospheres.”

New Telescope Technology

Over its two-year project, which would begin in 2025, ESCAPE would observe the radiation flows from over 200 stars. By doing that, France intends to reduce the list of places where researchers might expect to find traces of life.

For now, NASA has offered the team $2 million to give life to their concept, with the space agency expected to choose between the two projects in 2021. The team envisions ESCAPE to measure about 7 feet and weigh over 300 pounds.

ESCAPE will also use a new kind of telescope design, one that would be able to measure the dim extreme-ultraviolet radiation from faraway stars, information that astronomers couldn’t collect so far.

“Over the next nine months, we’re going to be making and testing engineering models of some of the more critical parts of the system in order to demonstrate that our design is actually going to perform as well as we think it’s going to,” said Brian Fleming, a research professor at LASP and the instrument scientist for ESCAPE.

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