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An important precursor to the colonization efforts beyond the human Home System was the Origins mission of the United States of America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Origins Program sought to answer the fundamental questions about the Universe: Are we alone in the Universe? How did we get here? What is the origin of the Universe? Is there another Earth – a Terra Nova?
The Mission Family
The Origins missions formed a family, in which each generation passed on a rich technological heritage to those that came after. Much like in human families, each mission had something unique to contribute, yet was closely tied to the others to form a supportive web.
Origins had four chronological generations that moved technology and knowledge forward: The Precursor Missions to Origins spanned the last seventy years of the Twentieth Century when humans discovered the existence of galaxies and later the existence of planets orbiting other stars. A whole new world of exploration opened up with the four missions that immediately preceded Origins.
- The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was the first, long-term space observatory; HST revealed stunning views of the Universe with 10-times better resolution than any ground-based telescope.
- The Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) looked at the Universe in a whole new light by studying objects in the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum, which was unobservable with other telescopes.
- The Stratospheric Observatory for Far Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) was Earth’s largest airborne telescope; SOFIA made observations that were impossible for even the largest and highest of ground-based telescopes.
- The Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) was able to see infrared (heat) radiation, SIRTF peered through the veil of gas and dust that obscured most of the Universe from view.
The First Generation Missions of Origins continued with missions that all served as technological parents of second-generation Terrestrial Planet Finder. The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) orbited in 2005CE had a pinpoint accuracy several hundred times greater than any previous mission; SIM began identifying stars that had planetary systems around them. The Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) which became operational in 2010CE was nearly four times the size of Hubble's mirror yet ultra-lightweight, NGST studied the very first stars and galaxies to emerge in the Universe.
The Second Generation Missions were the culmination of a decade's work; these missions combined preceding technologies to begin revealing whether life was a cosmic imperative. The Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) – officially named the Hoyle Full Spectrum Orbital Telescope – was launched in 2012 CE flew four advanced telescopes in formation; TPF gave human civilization the first "family portraits" of other planetary systems. One of these ultimately proved to support life. The Single Aperture Far-Infrared Observatory (SAFIR) orbited in 2016CE, was envisioned as a follow-on to the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) and the Herschel Space Observatory, SAFIR provided unprecedented sensitivity in the important range between infrared wavelengths and the microwave wavelengths observable with Earth-based telescopes. SAFIR explored the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the universe's distant past, and pierced the veils of obscuring dust to reveal planetary system formation in the Milky Way Galaxy.
The Third Generation Missions the Origins program planned to implement two observatories that would identify exosolar planets that supported life. The Life Finder (LF) mission would have sought to determine if a distant planet with the right living conditions actually had an abundance of living creatures. Life Finder would have been even more sensitive than Terrestrial Planet Finder, but the principle of characterizing a planet's conditions was the same. If a planet harbors life, biological activity on the planet would impact the atmosphere, just as it does on Earth. When analyzed, the radiation coming from the planet would be studied to identify fine dips in the radiated energy. These dips would indicate the presence of methane and other chemicals not found in nature unless biological activity is pumping it into the atmosphere. NASA administrators believed that Origins astrobiology research would help expand humanity’s knowledge of "life signs" that would appear at different stages in a planet's history, as well as signs that would appear given a planetary chemistry that isn't exactly the same as Earth. With these insights, it was believed, the best possible chance of recognizing life if and when it was found somewhere else.
The goal of the Planet Imager (PI) mission was to find “Terra Nova”. To create a picture would require a number of telescopes flying in formation to achieve the power of a telescope 360 kilometers wide.
This new Earth--this Terra Nova-- was at the forefront of human imagination. The Planet Imager (PI) mission would produce pictures of single planets at much higher resolution than any preceding mission. Instead of seeing a planet as a single dot, the PI was designed to achieve a larger image, consisting of as many pixels as possible. This would require an array of interferometers that each carried NGST-sized telescopes (about eight meters). They would have to fly in exquisitely precise formation . . . over distances of 6,000 kilometers or more. The third generation missions of the Origins program were superceded when the Japanese Space Agency (JSA) agreed to join forces with NASA in 2011 CE