The search for alien life could get a boost from NASA's next-generation rocket

Jul 15, 2014 by Elizabeth Howell, Universe Today
Artist’s conception of NASA’s Space Launch System. Credit: NASA

In three years, NASA is planning to light the fuse on a huge rocket designed to bring humans further out into the solar system.

We usually talk about SLS here in the context of the astronauts it will carry inside the Orion spacecraft, which will have its own test flight later in 2014. But today, NASA advertised a possible other use for the rocket: trying to find life beyond Earth.

At a symposium in Washington on the search for life, NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld said SLS could serve two major functions: launching bigger telescopes, and sending a mission on an express route to Jupiter's route Europa.

The James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror of 6.5 meters (21 feet), will in part search for exoplanets after its launch in 2018. Next-generation telescopes of 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet) could pick out more, if SLS could bring them up into space.

"This will be a multi-generational search," said Sara Seager, a planetary scientist and physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She added that the big challenge is trying to distinguish a planet like Earth from the light of its parent star; the difference between the two is a magnitude of 10 billion. "Our Earth is actually extremely hard to find," she said.

Much like our solar system, Kepler-62 is home to two habitable zone worlds. The small shining object seen to the right of Kepler-62f is Kepler-62e. Orbiting on the inner edge of the habitable zone, Kepler-62e is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth. Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.

seeking ideas for a mission to this moon, following news that water plumes were spotted spewing from the moon's icy south pole. A mission to Europa would take seven years with the technology currently in NASA's hands, but the SLS would be powerful enough to speed up the trip to only three years, Grunsfeld said.

And that's not all that SLS could do. If it does bring astronauts deeper in space as NASA hopes it will, this opens up a range of destinations for them to go to. Usually NASA talks about this in terms of its human asteroid mission, an idea it has been working on and pitching for the past year to a skeptical, budget-conscious Congress.

But in passing, John Mather (NASA's senior project scientist for Webb) said it's possible astronauts could be sent to maintain the telescope. Webb is supposed to be parked in a Lagrange point (gravitationally stable location) in the exact opposite direction of the sun, almost a million miles away. It's a big contrast to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was conveniently parked in low Earth orbit for astronauts to fix every so often with the space shuttle.

While NASA works on the funding and design for larger telescope mirrors, Webb is one of the two new space telescopes it is focusing on in the search for life. Webb's infrared eyes will be able to peer at solar systems being born, once it is launched in 2018. Complementary to that will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will fly in 2017 and examine planets that pass in front of their parent stars to find elements in their atmospheres.

An Artist’s Conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: ESA.

The usual cautions apply when talking about this article: NASA is talking about several missions under development, and it is unclear yet what the success of SLS or any of these will be until they are battle-tested in space.

But what this discussion does show is the agency is trying to find many purposes for its next-generation rocket, and working to align it to astrophysics goals as well as its desire to send humans further out in the solar system.

Explore further: NASA image: America's next rocket

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA image: America's next rocket

Jul 07, 2014

NASA's Space Launch System, or SLS, will be the most powerful rocket in history. The flexible, evolvable design of this advanced, heavy-lift launch vehicle will meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs.

Testing completed on James Webb Space Telescope backplane

Jul 09, 2014

(Phys.org) —NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has reached another development milestone with the completion of static load testing of its primary mirror backplane support structure (PMBSS) moving the telescope ...

Scientists assemble new space telescope

Mar 11, 2014

Scientists and engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center have begun to assemble and test the James Webb Space Telescope in advance of its 2018 debut.

Recommended for you

Mysteries of space dust revealed

Aug 29, 2014

The first analysis of space dust collected by a special collector onboard NASA's Stardust mission and sent back to Earth for study in 2006 suggests the tiny specks open a door to studying the origins of the ...

A guide to the 2014 Neptune opposition season

Aug 29, 2014

Never seen Neptune? Now is a good time to try, as the outermost ice giant world reaches opposition this weekend at 14:00 Universal Time (UT) or 10:00 AM EDT on Friday, August 29th. This means that the distant ...

Informing NASA's Asteroid Initiative: A citizen forum

Aug 28, 2014

In its history, the Earth has been repeatedly struck by asteroids, large chunks of rock from space that can cause considerable damage in a collision. Can we—or should we—try to protect Earth from potentially ...

Image: Rosetta's comet looms

Aug 28, 2014

Wow! Rosetta is getting ever-closer to its target comet by the day. This navigation camera shot from Aug. 23 shows that the spacecraft is so close to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that it's difficult to ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2014
I just checked, and groundbased giant telescopes can do this too. (With coronagraphs, not Seager's star shade.) They have to see the Os/O3 ratio as well as the oxygen sources H2O and CO2 to be able to distinguish between biotic and abiotic oxygen production on temperate terrestrials.

As luck will have it, Earth analogs around M stars are most numerous, most easy to see and most informative as the refracted star light reaches the surface. (While Earth analogs around Sun analogs only let us see the upper parts of the atmosphere.)