Creative sparks are flying as four contract-winning teams begin the quest to design Terrestrial Planet Finder, an ambitious mission in NASA's Origins Program that will look for possible life-supporting planets around other stars.
Through a three-month competitive process, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., selected the industrial- academic teams, which will spend the next two years developing mission concepts for Terrestrial Planet Finder. The teams are led by Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo.; Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.; TRW of Redondo Beach, Calif.; and SVS, Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M. About 75 scientists from 30 universities and research institutions, 16 industrial firms, and two NASA centers are represented on the teams.
"We've succeeded in our goal of engaging some of the best minds in the world," said Dr. Firouz Naderi, Origins Program Manager and Terrestrial Planet Finder project manager at JPL. "Now their task is to cover the waterfront on all feasible mission concepts for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, bringing us one step closer to finding out whether life exists elsewhere in the universe."
Finding habitable, Earth-like planets doesn't come easy. "The challenge is like trying to locate a firefly next to the beam of a brilliant searchlight," said Terrestrial Planet Finder Project Scientist Dr. Charles A. Beichman of JPL.
The solution depends on developing a whole suite of challenging technologies, including those necessary to fly several 3.5 meter (137-inch) telescopes in a formation so precise that we will know their positions to a fraction of a centimeter, even though the space between them will span a few football fields. The mission's success will also depend on the ability to cancel out a star's glare so that a planet one million-times fainter can be seen, and will require instruments so sensitive that they can identify the presence of life-sustaining chemicals on a planet up to 50 light years away from Earth.
"We will be looking for warm, water-bearing planets like Earth, and even for signs of primitive life," said Beichman. "To get there, Terrestrial Planet Finder will be built on the technological shoulders of earlier Origins missions, but several leaps in innovation will still be required."
That's why the team at JPL decided to establish an innovative approach to mission design and planning. To avoid basing Planet Finder's design on current and potentially "conventional" thinking, JPL threw open the doors to invention by requesting proposals that would reflect the most diverse set of feasible and affordable mission architectures.
"We didn't want the design teams to be constrained by existing concepts or so-called 'right answers,'" said Naderi. "This way we'll have the broadest set of concepts to choose from and won't miss out on any opportunity that's too good to pass up."
In the first, eight-month phase of the study, the four contract teams will be busy brainstorming options for detecting and characterizing far-away planets. In December 2000, the best two architectures from each team will be selected for further study in the planned, 11-month Phase 2 study, ending in November 2001.
Terrestrial Planet Finder is planned to launch in 2012. Over a five-year period, it will take a look at 250 stars to determine which ones may have orbiting, life-sustaining planets. The mission will also advance our understanding of how planets and their parent stars form by making thousands of images, all with a sharpness 10 to 100 times better than those of the Hubble Space Telescope. More information about Terrestrial Planet Finder can be found at: http://tpf.jpl.nasa.gov .
The Origins Program seeks to understand our cosmic roots by detailing how galaxies, stars, planets, and the chemicals necessary for life formed and developed in the universe. Its other primary goal is to search for the presence of life on distant worlds, answering the question "Are we alone?" Details about the Origins Program can be found at: http://origins.jpl.nasa.gov . JPL manages both Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Origins Program on behalf of NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
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