Super-Telescope Proposed by Scientists Would Have the Power to Find More Habitable Planets

The High-Definition Space Telescope, if built, would dwarf Hubble, the orbiting NASA telescope seen here in a photograph from 2009. NASA/REUTERS

A new proposal published by a team of America's leading astronomers has outlined plans for what would be the largest telescope ever created. The High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST), if built by NASA, would be five times as large as Hubble, the orbiting telescope launched by NASA in 1990. Equipped with a 12-meter mirror, it would also be about 100 times more powerful, giving it the capability to observe the atmospheres of planets orbiting around distant suns.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) detailed its vision for the telescope in a 163-page report called "From Cosmic Birth to Living Earth." The report, which was headed by scientists from MIT and the University of Washington, also declares an agenda for the coming years of American astronomy, including ambitions to observe how the universe evolves and to undertake a search for extraterrestrial life.

If approved by NASA and funded by Congress, the new telescope would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $10 billion, according to The New York Times. But that is a modest price tag for scientists hoping to find answers to age-old questions. The afterword of the new report, written by curators of astrophysics from the American Museum of Natural History, argues that "life is almost certainly out there somewhere beyond the surface of the Earth.... The proposed telescope will be able to detect signatures of life on planets outside our own Solar System, and begin to address the issue of whether life is ubiquitous."

If the proposal moves forward, the new telescope would likely launch sometime in the 2030s. Flagship projects of this scale (including previous super-telescopes) take NASA years to approve, fund and construct, and the scientists spearheading the HDST will have to wait in line behind other ongoing NASA missions. Still, prominent scientists are eager to move forward by whatever means necessary. Matt Mountain, the president of AURA, said in a press release that the current generation of scientists could "make a monumental discovery that will change mankind forever," suggesting that the proposed telescope has the potential to help us "learn whether or not we are alone in the universe." Mountain stressed that the success of the ambitious new proposal will depend on collaboration between NASA scientists, the space programs of other countries and tech researchers from around the world.

Support from the public can also be a key factor in moving projects like this through the political process. New discoveries, especially the search for life on other planets, often provoke discussion and debate. The much publicized Pluto flyby, which marked a milestone in space exploration this week, could help drum up public enthusiasm for future NASA projects like the HDST.