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The Europeans, by contrast, have kept their funding fairly steady. Other countries are interested in space and have missions under way or in the making, including China, Japan and India. But so far they have no ambitions to venture beyond Mars.

Does the coming gap in planetary exploration matter? Supporters argue that studying the geology, atmospheres and evolution of planets, moons and comets provides valuable science. Because space missions have such long lead times, some worry that the looming run of lean years will have deleterious effects even if budgets start to rise again. Their concern is that valuable knowledge will be lost in the interim.

Book Launch | Ear of the Ocean: Worlds Beyond Words

But if no probes are on the way, there are no such posts to offer. There are two oases in the coming exploration desert. One is Mars. Two rovers— Curiosity and Opportunity —are both still trundling across its surface. The MRO also provides highly detailed pictures of the Martian surface, which is useful for planning rover trips and for scouting future landing sites. The other bright spot is Earth. The Webb will be a successor of sorts to the year-old Hubble space telescope, which floats above Earth, and which has been one of the most successful space missions of the past quarter century.

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Among other things, the Webb will help to find dwarf planets, comets and Kuiper-belt objects. But observing from a distance is ultimately no substitute for getting up close. Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today.

Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts. New to The Economist? Sign up now Activate your digital subscription Manage your subscription Renew your subscription. Topics up icon. Blogs up icon. Current edition. Audio edition. Economist Films. According to their analysis, Macdonald and Cowan affirm that the Webb Telescope will be sensitive enough to detect carbon dioxide and water vapor using its instruments. It may even be able to detect the biosignature of methane and ozone if enough time is spent observing the target planet. Cowan and his colleagues at the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Exoplanets are hoping to be some of the first to detect signs of life beyond our home planet.

The fingerprint of Earth assembled by Macdonald for her senior undergraduate thesis could tell other astronomers what to look for in this search.


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She will be starting her Ph. Macdonald and Nicolas B.

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Cowan, was published online Aug. DOI: Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.


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