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SPIE O+P 2019: decadal studies turn heads to exoplanets

13 Aug 2019

Huge interest from youthful crowd prompts move to a larger conference room at San Diego meeting.

by Ford Burkhart in San Diego
A look towards the next decade of ambitious new observatories drew an unexpectedly large crowd during the first full day of conferences at SPIE’s Optics + Photonics meeting in San Diego.

Just over a week from now, reports from mission teams will be submitted for the next round of priority-setting known as “the Decadal,” the once-a-decade vision-setting survey for global astronomy, and highlights of their current thinking filled this session.

Most of the standing-room-only crowd were youthful, and the session’s popularity prompted conference organizers at SPIE to shift to a larger room after lunch. They came to hear about the ideas going into the next Decadal report, compiled by the US National Academy of Sciences at the request of NASA and Congress, with the next edition scheduled to begin in 2023.

Like the 2013-2022 version, the next volume will provide an official consensus for both the academic and industrial elements of the global community, with both well represented at Monday’s opening session.

Search for life
One key message to come through was the strong focus on the search for life on exoplanets, studies that ought to tell us much about how life came to our own once-lifeless rock.

Entitled “Decadal Large Mission Concepts and Technology,” the session focused on four key mission concepts: the Lynx X-Ray Observatory; the Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx); the Large UV/Optical/Infrared surveyor (Luvoir); and the far-infrared Origins Space Telescope.

Why such a youthful turnout? Luvoir representative Aki Roberge, a research astrophysicist in NASA’s Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics Lab at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, had an answer:

“The concepts represent a new family of greater observatories, in the tradition of Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra. But we are taking the next steps beyond them. How do we do this? We are going to do things better than we’ve ever done before.”

“Exoplanets is a fairly new field, a rapidly growing field,” she added. “The current practitioners tend to be young, and [even] the most senior people are young. They want to work in undiscovered territory, with lots of room for innovation. It’s a search for other worlds, and life in the universe. That’s inherently compelling.”

Another speaker, Matthew East, an optomechanical engineer who works on ultrastable mirrors for space telescopes at L3Harris in Rochester, New York, said the young audience wanted to “change our understanding of the universe”.

He added: “They have an ambition to do things not done before, to build machines that can directly take pictures of phenomena in the universe that no one’s one seen before. To help us learn about what’s going on around other stars.”

Lynx and HabEx
Marshall Bautz, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and part of the Lynx effort, said his team wants to understand the dawn of black holes and quasars. This is something thought to have taken place in a spectacular process that occurred over what, in cosmic terms, was very sudden – over a million years.

As well as helping to answer that, Lynx is expected to help explain how stellar activity affects the habitability of exoplanets. Bautz said Lynx would offer a capacity 100 times superior to that of the Chandra X-ray telescope, and predicted “game changing discoveries” across the astrophysical landscape.

On HabEx, Scott Gaudi from Ohio State University said the mission will be able to characterize the atmospheric spectra of habitable planets orbiting relatively nearby stars similar to our own sun.

It will, he said, be a true successor to the Hubble, partly by filling the void in the ultraviolet range after Hubble’s decommissioning (the James Webb Space Telescope is focused on infrared astronomy). From the spectra collected, HabEx will be able to assess the presence of water, oxygen, or ozone in the atmospheres of distant worlds. “And that’s the holy grail,” Gaudi added.

HabEx will be able to take what Gaudi described as “family portraits”, in the form of a deep survey of our nearest cosmic neighbors, and to learn about the architecture of these planets.

“Hollywood has already told us [that] half of the targets are habitable,” he said to laughter. “So we are bound to be successful.”

About the Author

Ford Burkhart is a writer based on Tucson, Arizona.

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