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Terrestrial Planet Finder

The Terrestrial Planet Finder is a proposed NASA telescope system capable of detecting extrasolar terrestrial planets.

In May 2002, NASA chose two TPF mission architecture concepts for further study and technology development. Each would use a different means to achieve the same goal - to block the light from a parent star in order to see its much smaller, dimmer planets. That technology challenge has been likened to finding a firefly near the beam of a brilliant searchlight from far away. Additional goals of the mission would include characterizing the surfaces and atmospheres of newfound planets, and looking for the chemical signatures of life.

The two candidate architectures are:

  • Infrared Interferometer: Multiple small telescopes on a fixed structure or on separated spacecraft flying in precision formation would simulate a much larger, very powerful telescope. The interferometer would utilize a technique called nulling to reduce the starlight by a factor of one million, thus enabling the detection of the very dim infrared emission from the planets.
  • Visible Light Coronagraph: A large optical telescope, with a mirror three to four times bigger and at least 10 times more precise than the Hubble Space Telescope, would collect starlight and the very dim reflected light from the planets. The telescope would have special optics to reduce the starlight by a factor of one billion, thus enabling astronomers to detect the faint planets.

NASA and JPL will issue calls for proposals seeking input on the development and demonstration of technologies to implement the two architectures, and on scientific research relevant to planet finding. It is anticipated that one of the two architectures will be selected in 2005 or 2006 to be implemented for the mission, which may include international collaboration. Launch is anticipated between 2012-2015, for a five-year mission duration.

The European Space Agency, ESA, is considering a similar mission, called Darwin. It is thought unlikely that NASA and ESA will both launch such a mission, with a collaborative mission being much more likely.

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