The Next-Generation Hubble Telescope May Help Us Discover Alien Life

Did you know that the Hubble Space Telescope turns 25 this month? That’s crazy!

As it stands, the Hubble should be relevant for another five years or so. That doesn’t mean it’s not time to start thinking about the future. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, believes that it’s time to start work on Hubble’s successor.

He posits the idea for a next-generation Hubble telescope in an editorial, published earlier today (April 15) in the Nature Journal.

Why Start Working on a New Telescope?

Hubble Space Telescope up close by NASA (Flickr)

Livio elaborated on the idea of a next-generation telescope in an interview with Space.com.

“Hubble has taught us that to answer the most interesting questions in astrophysics, we must plan for an impressive future and put scientific ambition ahead of budgetary concerns. In my perspective, the next priority should be the search for life beyond our solar system. A powerful space telescope that can spot biological signatures in the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets would be a commendable successor.”

Livio’s team operates the Hubble telescope’s science program, so he knows what he’s talking about.

Essentially, he suggests that the next telescope should be able to go one step further than just discovering worlds, by identifying potential lifeforms.

According to him, the specs for a telescope that can do this are pretty advanced, compared to what the Hubble telescope is equipped with. The new one would need a primary mirror at least 39 feet (12 meters) wide, with vision 25 times sharper than that of Hubble. Like me, you probably have no idea what the current Hubble has so I’ll list the specs for you. The main mirrors of Hubble are 7.9 feet (2.4 meters), 7.9 feet and 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) wide, respectively.

How Can It Discover Alien Life?

Hubble spies charming spiral galaxy by NASA (Flickr)

At the very least, Livio seems to think that a telescope this powerful could scan Earth-like planets to accurately suggest “meaningful statistical constraints” on the possibility of alien life in our galaxy.

“A large sample of planets — around 50 — would have to be tested. Calculations show, for example, that if no biosignatures are detected in more than about three dozen Earth analogues, the probability of remotely detectable extrasolar life in our galactic neighborhood is less than about 10%.”

Apparently, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy is planning to release a report in June, about a potential telescope project like the one Livio describes. He wants the scientific community to put the plan into action.

He explains what needs to happen before the telescope can actually become a reality:

“First, NASA, ESA and other potential international partners should convene a panel to examine such a project. Technology-development studies should be accelerated to make a launch around 2030 plausible. The search for life must be prioritized in the next U.S. and international decadal surveys that guide national funding decisions about missions.”

Are We Alone in the Universe?

Hubble's view of a changing fan by NASA (Flickr)

Naturally, Livio believes that the next step is to look for extraterrestrial life.

“Many researchers would concur that the question of, ‘Is there extrasolar life?’ is one of the most interesting questions in science today. So let’s try to really answer that question, and do what it takes to answer it, as opposed to maybe taking baby steps that would just push the answer into the more distant future.”

Try to imagine, if you will, a telescope that can accomplish what he’s suggesting. The Hubble does a great job of discovering new areas in space and has helped us learn a lot about the universe. Yet there are still so many questions, the biggest of which is whether or not we are alone.

We may not be. Livio seems to think a telescope can help us figure that out.

What do you think?

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