Since the dawn of human civilization, humankind has looked to the stars and wondered if life, whether it be similar to our own or not, exists beyond our planet. Until 1992, when the first exoplanets were confirmed, it was uncertain whether there were even any planets outside of our own solar system. Today, thanks to the detailed data from the Astrophysics missions fleet, we now know of over 5,500 planets around other stars and thousands of other planet candidates. Of those confirmed exoplanets, roughly 50 small (roughly Earth-sized planets) orbit within their star’s habitable zone, where liquid water, which is essential for life as we know it, could potentially pool under the right conditions.
To take the search for life beyond our solar system a big step forward, NASA is discussing a future mission concept with the capabilities to identify and image Earth-like planets and characterize them for evidence of life. The search for life has long been one of NASA’s key priorities, from some of the first exoplanet observations with Hubble, to the Kepler and TESS missions, to a closer study of exoplanet atmospheres with Webb. A mission concept, the Habitable Worlds Observatory, will be designed specifically to look at habitable planets and their atmospheres to help answer the question, “is there life beyond Earth?”