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Creative sparks are flying as four contract-winning teams
begin the quest to design Terrestrial Planet Finder, an
ambitious mission in NASA’s Origins Program that will look for
possible life-supporting planets around other stars.

Through a three-month competitive process, the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., selected the industrial-
academic teams, which will spend the next two years developing
mission concepts for Terrestrial Planet Finder. The teams are
led by Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo.; Lockheed Martin Space
Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif.; TRW of Redondo Beach, Calif.; and
SVS, Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M. About 75 scientists from 30
universities and research institutions, 16 industrial firms, and
two NASA centers are represented on the teams.

“We’ve succeeded in our goal of engaging some of the best
minds in the world,” said Dr. Firouz Naderi, Origins Program
Manager and Terrestrial Planet Finder project manager at JPL.
“Now their task is to cover the waterfront on all feasible
mission concepts for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, bringing us
one step closer to finding out whether life exists elsewhere in
the universe.”

Finding habitable, Earth-like planets doesn’t come easy.
“The challenge is like trying to locate a firefly next to the
beam of a brilliant searchlight,” said Terrestrial Planet
Finder Project Scientist Dr. Charles A. Beichman of JPL.

The solution depends on developing a whole suite of
challenging technologies, including those necessary to fly
several 3.5 meter (137-inch) telescopes in a formation so precise
that we will know their positions to a fraction of a centimeter,
even though the space between them will span a few football
fields. The mission’s success will also depend on the ability to
cancel out a star’s glare so that a planet one million-times
fainter can be seen, and will require instruments so sensitive
that they can identify the presence of life-sustaining chemicals
on a planet up to 50 light years away from Earth.

“We will be looking for warm, water-bearing planets like
Earth, and even for signs of primitive life,” said Beichman. “To
get there, Terrestrial Planet Finder will be built on the
technological shoulders of earlier Origins missions, but several
leaps in innovation will still be required.”

That’s why the team at JPL decided to establish an
innovative approach to mission design and planning. To avoid
basing Planet Finder’s design on current and potentially
“conventional” thinking, JPL threw open the doors to invention by
requesting proposals that would reflect the most diverse set of
feasible and affordable mission architectures.

“We didn’t want the design teams to be constrained by
existing concepts or so-called ‘right answers,'” said Naderi.
“This way we’ll have the broadest set of concepts to choose from
and won’t miss out on any opportunity that’s too good to pass

In the first, eight-month phase of the study, the four
contract teams will be busy brainstorming options for detecting
and characterizing far-away planets. In December 2000, the best
two architectures from each team will be selected for further
study in the planned, 11-month Phase 2 study, ending in November

Terrestrial Planet Finder is planned to launch in 2012.
Over a five-year period, it will take a look at 250 stars to
determine which ones may have orbiting, life-sustaining planets.
The mission will also advance our understanding of how planets
and their parent stars form by making thousands of images, all
with a sharpness 10 to 100 times better than those of the Hubble
Space Telescope. More information about Terrestrial Planet
Finder can be found at: .

The Origins Program seeks to understand our cosmic roots by
detailing how galaxies, stars, planets, and the chemicals
necessary for life formed and developed in the universe. Its
other primary goal is to search for the presence of life on
distant worlds, answering the question “Are we alone?” Details
about the Origins Program can be found at: .

JPL manages both Terrestrial Planet Finder and the Origins
Program on behalf of NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington,
D.C. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena.