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Chapter 4

NASA's Search for New Worlds

"Other worlds are no longer the stuff of dreams and philosophical musings.
They are out there, beckoning, with the potential to change forever humanity's perspective on its place in the Universe"

- New York Times

NASA, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration in the USA, has embarked on a multipronged program to detect new habitable worlds throughout the Cosmos.

Questions like; Are there other solar systems like our own out there? Are there other habitable worlds in existence? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? are questions NASA's Origins/Navigator Program are trying to answer. NASA's Origins/Navigator Program is a bold series of of interrelated missions to explore and characterize new worlds. Each successive mission provides an essential step toward the ultimate goal of discovering habitable planets around nearby stars and revealing signs of life elsewhere in the Universe.

The core of the Origins/Navigator Mission includes; The Keck Interferometer, the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer, the Space Inteferometer Mission (SIM)/PlanetQuest, the Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph and the Terrestrial Planet Finder Interferometer.

NASA's search for new worlds also includes the Kepler Mission, SOFIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), SAFIR (Single Aperture Far-Infrared Observatory), SIRTF (Space Infrared Telescope Facility), the establishment of the Michelson Science Center, The GAIA Mission, EPOCH (Extrasoloar Planet Observation and Characterizations), Corot (Convection Rotation of Planetary Transits), and the Spitzer, James Webb and Hubble Space Telescopes, among others...

The expectation for NASA's search over the next 2 decades will be to catalog a census of planetary systems found around very distant and very near stars. The Kepler Mission will determine how common Earth like planets are by monitoring the transits of hundreds of thousands of stars in the Orion spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, towards the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra.

The stars near our own sun will be studied in extensive detail by the Keck Interferometer telescope in Hawaii and the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer in Arizona. These telescopes will be used to reveal large gas giants and dust patterns in the inner regions of the Orion spiral arm.

The James Webb Space Telescope will probe nearby stars revealing planet forming regions and detecting the youngest Jupiter-like planets. SIM (Space Interferometer Mission)/Planet Quest will gather precise measurements yielding a catalog of the numbers, masses and orbits of planets whose sizes range from almost as small as Earth to larger than Jupiter.

The Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph will search for optical wavelengths while the Terrestrial Planet Finder Interferometer will look for mid-infrared wavelengths to determine if oxygen, water vapor, methane and carbon dioxide exist on these newly discovered planets.

NASA's original 2000 Origins/Navigator road map set out a plan for a twenty year period starting at the beginning of the millennium to search for planets and planetary systems orbiting nearby stars and star systems, focusing on the near term (2005-2010), mid-term (2010-2015) and long range (2020 and beyond) phases of exploration. Foremost, though, in the Origins/Navigator Mission is the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990. Hubble has photographed thousands of stars, star systems and galaxies over the years and has probably done more than any other mission to reveal the grandeur and magnificence of our Universe.

The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) will use imaging and spectroscopy at infrared wavelengths to penetrate, find and characterize planets. SIRTF will also contribute extensively to the understanding of the formation of stars, planets and the early evolution of galaxies.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) will study sites of star formation, the cold interstellar medium and the center of our galaxy with far infrared wavelengths at high resolution.

Extrasolar planets are a reality. Over 700 have already been cataloged as of 2011. The Space Interferometer Mission, or SIM, will be the first observatory capable of detecting and measuring the masses of planetary bodies with a few times the mass of the Earth in orbit around nearby stars. SIM will extend the ground based Keck Interferometer census of stars into a range of rocky, terrestrial planets for the first time. This new census will provide the "target list" for the Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph and Interferometer missions. The Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) missions will directly detect and study planets outside our solar system from their formation and development into disks of dust and gas around newly forming stars. TPF will measure the size, temperature and placement of terrestrial planets as small as Earth in the habitable zones of distant solar systems. Habitable zones are often referred to as "goldilocks" zones where the existence of water is in liquid form, between the frozen and gaseous stages. TPF spectroscopic capability will allow atmospheric chemists and astrobiologists to use the relative amounts of gases like carbon dioxide, water vapor, ozone and methane to determine whether a planet could or even does support life as we know it.

The TPF observatory will most likely take the form of either a coronagraph operating at visible wavelengths or a large baseline interferometer operating in the infrared wavelength band. The coronagraph imagery will produce a billion-to-one image contrast. The interferometer, by comparison, will only produce a million-to-one image contrast.

A long term Origins/Navigator goal is to conduct a detailed study of life and its evolution in ecosystems beyond our solar system. Achieving that goal will require observations beyond those possible with the TPF missions.

Two missions still far in the future, because of their demanding technologies, are the Life Finder mission and the James Webb Space Telescope. Life Finder would provide high resolution spectroscopy of habitable planets cataloged by the TPF. This information would provide astrobiologists, astrophysicists, geophysicists and atmospheric chemists with the imagery and data they will need to study extrasolar planets circling nearby stars and star systems.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the next step beyond the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope program. JWST will have 3 times the diameter of the Hubble mirror and about an order of magnitude of more light gathering capacity built into its capability. Prime scientific goals for the JWST will be to observe the formation and early evolution of galaxies at mid and near infrared wavelengths where the light coming in from very young galaxies will appear most prominently.

NASA's first mission capable of finding Earth size and other small sized planets is being carried out by the Kepler Mission. Kepler is a special purpose spacecraft that precisely measures the light from distant stars looking for planetary transits. When a planet passes in front of its parent star, it blocks a small fraction of the light from that star- this is known as a transit. Measuring repeated transits, all with regular and identifiable periods, durations and changes in luminosity and brightness, provides researchers with a method of discovering, identifying and confirming planets and their orbits around distant stars. Kepler will search 100,000 stars for Earth like planets in our galaxy with the intent of compiling data on their size, orbital period and temperature. Kepler will focus its detection and measurement capabilities specifically into the Cygnus-Lyra region of the sky.

The Michelson Science Center plays a strong role in the search for Earth like planets by supporting the missions of the Origins/Navigator exploratory program put forth by NASA. The center is envisioned to become a hub for developing and maintaining databases and archives on the Keck, SIM/Planet Quest and Terrestrial Planet Finder missions.

Scientifically and technologically speaking, NASA's original Origins/Navigator programs and missions are a milestone with regards to extending human vision and comprehension of our place in the Universe. Although the exploration is specifically embedded in physical observational and telescopic searches of stars, star systems and entire galaxies, the task remains an admirable and worthy undertaking.

By the middle of the 21st century, the Origins/Navigator program could be compiling a vast catalog of tens of thousands of solar systems and monitoring the weather, climate, seasons and biochemistry of literally hundreds of inhabited worlds. Most of the extrasolar planets discovered so far seem to be largely the size of gas giants like Jupiter. Many Earth like worlds may also orbit other stars, but at this point in time, measurements lack the precision necessary to detect a world as small as Earth. The Kepler and Terrestrial Planet Finder missions may significantly narrow this precision gap, yet it will be the space-based missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope that will provide the extraordinary precision necessary to discover Earth sized planets throughout the Cosmos.

Such is NASA's search for other worlds. An exciting, breathtaking and highly sophisticated technological attempt to find physical life elsewhere in the Universe. I conclude that habitable Earth like planets will eventually be found and that many of them will harbor life and life-forms similar to those found on Earth. We will find, in my opinion, that not only are we not the only intelligent species of life known to inhabit our own galaxy, but that the entire Cosmos is absolutely teeming with life as we know it (and don't know it). This, of course, provides a nice segue into the existence of interdimensional life and travel. Non-physical by nature, such life forms may have the ability to holographically "translocate" themselves through time and space and traverse vast interstellar distances.

Terrestrially, this is being done already through programs such as with "remote viewing", where an individual enters into a deep meditative state of consciousness and then bi-locates into his/her astral body. This astral body is then able to move about freely in an other worldly, higher dimension of reality, transcending the barriers, confines and physics of the physical world. Much of this type of work began in the 1960's as part of a "black" CIA/DIA military espionage program developed at such institutions such as the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Such "psychic spy" operations are obviously much, much more highly advanced today with the intent to not only astrally translocate to various parts of the Earth instantaneously, but to traverse the Cosmos, as has been documented by explorers and researchers such as Courtney Brown, author of the book, "Cosmic Voyage".

Beyond the baseline physical, scientific, observational means of detecting life on distant worlds through NASA's "Exploring New Worlds" and SETI's radio frequency search missions and activities, it may very well be that excursions into inner space, through remote viewing, lucid dreaming and 'out of body' experience astral travel, may become the only futuristic evolutionary means through which the human species will truly discover and communicate with other life forms throughout the Universe.

This is the world of spirit, consciousness and intelligence, non-physical by nature, yet possessing the ability to translocate, travel through time and experience levels of reality and being far beyond what we now currently comprehend and classify as "life". Olaf Stapledon in his groundbreaking novel, "Starmaker" describes his account of intergalactic astral travel and his interactions with other alien life forms scattered throughout the Universe. His book is a must read for anyone interested in exploring other worlds and coming into contact with extraterrestrial life and intelligences in this manner.