Terrestrial Planet Finder

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The Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) is a proposed project by NASA to construct a system of telescopes for 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 distant searchlight. Additional goals of the mission would include characterizing the surfaces and atmospheres of newfound planets, and looking for the chemical signatures of life. In May 2004, both architectures were approved. Congressional spending limits under House Resolution 20 passed on January 31, 2007, by the United States House of Representatives and February 14 by the U.S. Senate have postponed the program indefinitely.

The two planned architectures were:

  • Infrared astronomical interferometer (TPF-I): Multiple small telescopes on a fixed structure or on separated spacecraft floating in precision formation would simulate a much larger, very powerful telescope. The interferometer would use 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 (TPF-C): A large optical telescope, with a mirror three to four times bigger and at least 100 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 Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) were to 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. Launch of TPF-C had been anticipated to occur around 2014, and TPF-I possibly by 2020.

According to NASA's 2007 budget documentation, released on February 6, 2006,[1] the project was deferred indefinitely.[2] In June 2006, a House of Representatives subcommittee voted to provide funding for the TPF along with the long-sought mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that might harbor extraterrestrial life.[3] However, as of June 2008, actual funding has not materialized, and TPF remains without a launch date.[4]

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