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The atmospheric characterization of a significant number of terrestrial planets, including the search for habitable and potentially inhabited planets, is probably the major goal of exoplanetary science and one of the most challenging endeavours in 21st century astrophysics.
However, despite being at the top of the agenda of all major space agencies and ground-based observatories, none of the currently planned projects or missions worldwide – neither in Europe, nor in the US, China or India – has the technical capabilities to achieve this goal.
LIFE addresses this issue by investigating the scientific potential and technological challenges of an ambitious mission employing a formation-flying nulling interferometer in space working at mid-infrared wavelengths. As such, LIFE is grounded in the heritage of ESA’s Darwin and NASA’s TPF-I concepts from the early/mid 2000s. However, breakthroughs in our understanding of the exoplanet population as well as significant progress in relevant technologies justify the need, but also the feasibility for a future mission like LIFE to investigate one of the most fundamental questions of mankind:
are we alone in the Universe?
Current project phase
After an official kick-off in 2018 and community building efforts in 2020, LIFE is currently in a first study phase. Main activities include:
- Formulating a first set of clear science objectives and science cases for the mission
- Deriving a first set of major science requirements based on the science objectives
- Assessing the current status and maturity of key technologies required for the mission
- Drafting a technology development roadmap
- Seeking funding opportunities for technical as well as scientific work related to LIFE
- Community building by generating interest in the science and technology development and expanding the team of collaborators. Please get in touch with us!
While LIFE is unique in its scope and ambition, other projects share some of the scientific goals or employ or develop technology that is synergistic with that relevant to LIFE.
- METIS (the mid-infrared ELT imager and spectrograph), a first generation instrument for ESO‘s 39-m Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). METIS will work at mid-infrared wavelengths (3-19 micrometer) and will be operational in the mid 2020s. Exoplanet science is one of the main drivers for METIS’ development, and, while METIS might be (one of) the first instrument(s) to ever image a terrestrial planet around one of the nearest stars, the total number of small planets that are within METIS’ reach will be limited to a few.
- Hi-5, a new instrument study for ESO‘s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). The main goal is to develop the relevant technology to do high-contrast (nulling) interferometry between 3-5 micrometer wavelength from the ground to study forming exoplanets, but also exozodiacal dust disks and IR-bright extragalactic sources with the highest possible angular resolution.
- PFI (Planet Formation Imager), an international project developing a new instrument concept for a new interferometer. The challenging goal is to deliver spatially resolved images of Hill-sphere-sized structures within the gas and dust rich disk surrounding young stars to study empirically the physical conditions and mechanisms of gas-giant planet formation.
- LUVOIR and HabEX are mission concepts from NASA with the goal to detect and characterize terrestrial exoplanets in reflected light. The Origin Space Telescope (OST) concept, also under study at NASA, would provide transmission and secondary eclipse measurements of small planets between 3 and 20 micron. Depending on the outcome of the decadal survey in 2020 one of the three might become NASA’s next flagship mission.