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4273-20

Next-Generation Space Telescope (NGST) & Space-Based Optical SETI

by

Steven Kilston & David L. Begley

 

 

Abstract

Many new space observatory projects are now being discussed and planned.  With the primary goals of useful astronomical research, including detection and characterization of extrasolar planetary systems, the larger of such prospective observatories include the Next-Generation Space Telescope (NGST), Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF), Darwin, Life Finder (LF), and Planet Imager (PF).  Several of these seem particularly useful for SETI searches at optical wavelengths, as do also some smaller proposed space observatories such as Eclipse, Kepler, and GAIA.

The new space observatories offer the following capabilities of particular interest to SETI: (1) single, calibrated instruments providing continuous extended time observing a particular planetary system or a wide-angle region containing many possible systems; (2) sensitivity in wavelength regions difficult to observe through the earth's atmosphere due to absorption or to scattered light; (3) very high photometric accuracy to detect small variations in signal from a planetary system; (4) decreased scattered light from our solar system's zodiacal light, depending on observatory orbit location; and (5) the potential of blocking (nulling) most of a star's light, thereby increasing greatly the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for detecting light from objects close to the star.

We offer some suggestions as to how these new space observatories might be employed or adapted to offer optical SETI capabilities, and provide estimates of their potential performance for that mission.

Many new space observatory projects are now being planned with the primary goals of useful astronomical research, including detection and characterization of extrasolar planetary systems.  The larger of such prospective observatories  include the Next-Generation Space Telescope (NGST), Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF), Life Finder (LF), and Planet Imager (PF).  Several seem particularly useful for SETI searches at optical wavelengths, as do also some smaller proposed space  observatories such as Eclipse, Kepler, and GAIA, offering: (1) single, calibrated instruments providing continuous extended  time observing a particular planetary system or a wide-angle region containing many possible systems; (2) sensitivity in wavelength regions difficult to observe through the earth's atmosphere due to absorption or to scattered light; (3) very high photometric accuracy to detect small variations in signal from a planetary system; (4) decreased scattered light from our solar system's zodiacal light, depending on observatory orbit location; or (5) the potential of blocking (nulling) most of a star's light, thereby increasing greatly the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) for detecting light from objects close to the star.  We offer some suggestions as to how these new space observatories might be employed or adapted to offer optical SETI capabilities, and provide estimates of their potential performance.

 

Keywords

Optical SETI, space observatories, NGST, TPF.

 

Principal Author Biography

Steven Kilston was Carl Sagan's first undergraduate research student, at Harvard, writing "A Search for Life on Earth at Kilometer Resolution.  At UCLA, his doctoral dissertation "On the Nature of the Carbon Stars" proved stars manufacture the chemical elements we think life needs. He was an aerospace systems engineer at Hughes Aircraft Co., where he worked on laser communications, and at Lockheed Palo Alto Research Labs, where he was the principal designer and promoter of the 1-meter resolution IKONOS satellite, which has been called "one of the most significant developments in the history of the space age."  He has recently been managing the initial phases of the Terrestrial Planet Finder program at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.  He has authored over twenty scientific and engineering articles, including some on interstellar spaceflight.  Dr. Kilston long hosted a radio talk program covering all areas of technology and science, and he organized and chaired a national symposium on "Seeing Ourselves in the Stars: Our Universe in Philosophical Perspective".

Principal Author Affiliation

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., M/S T-3
P.O. Box 1062
Boulder, CO 80306-1062
USA
Tel: 303-939-4998
Fax: 303-939-5533
Email: skilston@ball.com

Secondary Author Affiliation

David L. Begley,
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., M/S RA-2,
P.O. Box 1062, Boulder, CO 80306-1062,
USA
Tel: 303-939-6372
Fax: 303-939-6382
Email: dbegley@ball.com

 

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