The search for living worlds and the connection to our cosmic origins

Barstow, M. A.; Aigrain, S.; Barstow, J. K.; Barthelemy, M.; Biller, B.; Bonanos, A.; Buchhave, L.; Casewell, S. L.; Charbonnel, C.; Charlot, S.; Davies, R.; Devaney, N.; Evans, C.; Ferrari, M.; Fossati, L.; Gänsicke, B.; Garcia, M.; de Castro, A. I. Gomez; Henning, T.; Lintott, C.; Knigge, C.; Neiner, C.; Rossi, L.; Snodgrass, C.; Stam, D.; Tolstoy, E. and Tosi, M. (2021). The search for living worlds and the connection to our cosmic origins. Experimental Astronomy (Early access).



One of the most exciting scientific challenges is to detect Earth-like planets in the habitable zones of other stars in the galaxy and search for evidence of life. During the past 20 years the detection of exoplanets, orbiting stars beyond our own, has moved from science fiction to science fact. From the first handful of gas giants, found through radial velocity studies, detection techniques have increased in sensitivity, finding smaller planets and diverse multi-planet systems. Through enhanced ground-based spectroscopic observations, transit detection techniques and the enormous productivity of the Kepler space mission, the number of confirmed planets has increased to more than 2000. Several space missions, including TESS (NASA), now operational, and PLATO (ESA), will extend the parameter space for exoplanet discovery towards the regime of rocky Earth-like planets and take the census of such bodies in the neighbourhood of the Solar System. The ability to observe and characterise dozens of potentially rocky Earth-like planets now lies within the realm of possibility due to rapid advances in key space and imaging technologies and active studies of potential missions have been underway for a number of years. The latest of these is the Large UV Optical IR space telescope (LUVOIR), one of four flagship mission studies commissioned by NASA in support of the 2020 US Decadal Survey. LUVOIR, if selected, will be of interest to a wide scientific community and will be the only telescope capable of searching for and characterizing a sufficient number of exo-Earths to provide a meaningful answer to the question “Are we alone?”. This contribution is a White Paper that has been submitted in response to the ESA Voyage 2050 Call.

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