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"Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it."
- Robert Heinlein

Automated Search For Habitable Planets  
  Automated use of telescopes and other devices to search the universe for Earth-like planets.  

Ran Argal gives his dimension shifting apparatus its head after moving out of our galaxy into intergalactic space, heading toward the great Andromeda galaxy.

I was near enough it now to set my automatic astronomical instruments to searching it for a habitable planet.

These instruments were the wonderful ones our astronomers had perfected. With super-telescopic eyes each one scanned a part of the star field before them. And each mechanical eye, when it found planetary systems in its field, automatically shifted upon them a higher powered telespectroscope which recorded on permanent film the size, mean temperature and atmospheric conditions of these worlds.

Tensely I turned the great battery of telescopic eyes upon the galaxy ahead. Then I watched eagerly as the clicking, sliding, impersonal instruments searched that great mass of suns. As each mechanical eye finished its record, I snatched it up and examined it...

From Cosmic Quest, by Edmond Hamilton.
Published by Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1936
Additional resources -

I can't think of an earlier direct reference to this exact idea, but take a look at this manual search for a habitable planet by EE 'Doc' Smith in Skylark of Valeron.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Cosmic Quest
  More Ideas and Technology by Edmond Hamilton
  Tech news articles related to Cosmic Quest
  Tech news articles related to works by Edmond Hamilton

Automated Search For Habitable Planets-related news articles:
  - Looking For Earth-Like Worlds With Nulling Interferometry
  - Europe's Cheops To Look For Habitable Planets
  - Automated Planet Finder Telescope Starts The Hunt
  - NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) Looks Nearby
  - Confirm 100 Exoplanets At Once! (With Video)

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NASA Wants Low Earth Orbit Wifi
The Space Suit As Personal Spaceship
Pent-Up NASA Scientists Simulate Life On Mars

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