Captain Cook, the Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
- arXiv: astro-ph/0212336
Over two hundred years ago Capt. James Cook sailed up Whitsunday Passage, just a few miles where we now sit, on a voyage of astronomical observation and discovery that remains an inspiration to us all. Since the prospects of our visiting planets beyond our solar system are slim, we will have to content ourselves with searching for life using remote sensing, not sailing ships. Fortunately, a recently completed NASA study has concluded that a Terrestrial Planet Finder could be launched within a decade to detect terrestrial planets around nearby stars. A visible light coronagraph using an 8-10 m telescope, or an infrared nulling interferometer, operated on either a sim40 m structure or separated spacecraft, could survey over 150 stars, looking for habitable planets and signs of primitive life. Such a mission, complemented by projects (Kepler and Eddington) that will provide statistical information on the frequency of Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone, will determine key terms in the ``Drake equation'' that describes the number of intelligent civilizations in the Universe.