UA planetary scientist to testify before Presidential commission Friday

04/14/04

Humans could have the ability to detect Earth-sized planets with atmospheres in the next decade -- or prolong the search simply because they've taken the wrong approach, according to a leading planetary scientist.

Jonathan I. Lunine of the University of Arizona will testify before the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy (Moon, Mars and Beyond) in a public hearing to be held in San Francisco tomorrow and Friday (April 15 and 16).

The President's commission is charged with building consensus, making recommendations to the President regarding moon activities, increasing young people's interest in space science, and encouraging industry and other nations to become space partners.

The commission has asked Lunine to talk about the "beyond" part of the President's initiative -- that is, what the nation should do to detect other Earths around our nearest neighboring stars.

"It doesn't require going to the Moon or using astronauts," he said.

A quicker, more practical strategy to detecting Earth-like planets featuring signs of life will be to develop medium-sized optical and infrared space telescopes, the Terrestrial Planet Finder. The telescopes could be deployed in the next 10 or 12 years and "will discover habitable worlds around other stars before humans return to the Moon in force."

Lunine is professor of planetary sciences and physics, and chairs the Theoretical Astrophysics Program at the University of Arizona. He also is a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. He is a member of NASA's Space Science Advisory Committee and chairman of its Solar System Exploration subcommittee. A member of science teams on several space missions, he is currently an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission to Saturn and on the James Webb (Next Generation )Space Telescope.

Lunine is author of the book "Earth: Evolution of a Habitable World," (Cambridge University Press, 1999) a textbook on how the Earth became and is sustained as a habitable planet.

The two-day hearing features experts from the fields of education, entertainment, robotics and space science. It will be held at the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, 1150 San Francisco Street, San Francisco, Calif. More about the hearing is available on the website, http://www.moontomars.org.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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