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Discoveries of planets outside our solar system have burst from a trickle to a flood in recent years, transforming our understanding of the Universe. NASA's Kepler exoplanet-hunting spacecraft and other missions have shown that the Milky Way Galaxy is teeming with at least tens of billions of planets. These exoplanets come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from smaller than Earth to larger than Jupiter, and include a small number of Earth-size planets in the “habitable zones” of their stars. Telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope are carefully examining the atmospheric compositions of many of these alien worlds. However, the goals of imaging an Earth-size planet around another star and comprehensively understanding surface properties and atmospheric characteristics remain elusive.
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 will help move comparative planetology forward, while astronomers are continuing to design and develop the next generation of observatories. As scientists deeply involved in this research, we welcome your questions about the current state of knowledge about the diversity of exoplanetary systems, and the challenges of direct imaging and atmospheric characterization in particular. We’re especially interested in telescope concepts under development to directly image exoplanets and search for water, ozone, oxygen, and other potential markers of habitability, and envision where these may take our understanding of exoplanets in the next decade.