Latest Great Space News
Jan 27, 2023
I cover aerospace, astronomy and host The Cosmic Controversy Podcast. Got it! getty The whole world has been awestruck by the magnificent images produced by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Webb has already turned astronomy on its head and renewed debate about how the cosmos first formed and evolved. But there were years of delays in its development that frustrated both researchers and the public at large. So, at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) this month in Seattle, a major topic of discussion was lessons learned from Webb’s extended gestation period. And, specifically, how to take this hard-won experience and use it to proceed with the next generation of revolutionary space telescopes. NASA’S first Great Space Observatories were the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra x-ray Observatory and the Compton gamma-ray Observatory. Of the four, only Chandra and Hubble are still operational. But both NASA and the professional astronomical community are already discussing the yet unfunded next generation of space-based ‘New Great Observatories.’ They are: The Habitable Worlds Observatory (IROUV), the X-ray Great Observatory (based on the Lynx X-ray Observatory Mission Concept), and the Far-Infrared (FIR) Great Observatory, based on the Origins Space Telescope Mission Concept. In 2020 fiscal year dollars, the Habitable Worlds Observatory which would be launched first would have a total cost of $11 billion. The other two observatories would clock in around $5 billion each. If we can grow the budget then we can see all three in the sky by 2045, Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and AAS Vice President, told me via phone and email. MORE FOR YOU As for lessons learned from Webb’s development? The biggest one is don't put your inventions on the back burner, says Tremblay. Before you start building the telescope, front load the riskiest most uncertain technologies and do the hardest things first, he says. The Great Observatories Mission & Technology Maturation Program (GOMaP) will mature enabling ... [+] technologies for three mission entrants, beginning with the Habitable Worlds Observatory (formerly called the IR/O/UV observatory), and followed by X-ray and Far-Infrared Great Observatories inspired by the Lynx and Origins mission concepts, respectively. Note that the images of these observatories are completely notional, as telescope architectures have yet to be finalized. "The New Great Observatories Coalition (www.greatobservatories.org)" The first mission is now formally called the Habitable World (HabWorld) Observatory, says Tremblay. It will do spectroscopy of 25 exo-earths with a very sensitive, segmented-mirror telescope that can image with extremely high, one in a 10 billion contrast, he says. This mission's biggest challenge will be to suppress a star’s light so that light reflected by a potentially habitable exoplanet can be separated from the contaminating glare of its host star, says Tremblay. This light will have passed through the planet’s atmosphere before crossing tens of light years of interstellar space to the HabWorlds telescope, says Tremblay. But after removing nearly all the contaminating starlight, we will analyze light from the planet’s atmosphere and look for molecular biosignatures indicative of life, he says. It’s possible that the observatory will look somewhat like Webb, except that it won’t have a sunshade, says Tremblay. As for the other two planned observatories? Inspired by the Lynx mission concept, this x-ray observatory will have a much larger field of view and orders of magnitude greater sensitivity than any previous such x-ray observatory, says Tremblay. And it will observe everything from the poles of our own planet Jupiter to black holes at the edge of time, he says. The Origins design, with an expanded four-meter class monolithic aperture, will help us better understand the origin and destiny of the cosmos, says Tremblay. And in many ways, it will reveal how the universe becomes complex, he says. It will follow the trail of water throughout cosmic time as well as observe chemical complexity in both star-forming regions and the cold, dusty cosmic realms that fuel star and planet formation, says Tremblay. LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 12: A general view of the broadcast of NASA's first images from James Webb ... [+] Space Telescope to screens in Picadilly Circus on July 12, 2022 in London, England. The imagery from the James Webb Space Telescope was also broadcast to screens in Times Square as part of a global collaboration between Landsec and NASA. (Photo by Ricky Vigil/Getty Images) Getty Images But the route to this next generation of observatories will still be arduous. Our current development paradigm could best be described as pre-industrial or handmade artisanal, says Tremblay. Everything about it is one of a kind —- from the instruments to the focal plane array, he says. As for why Webb took so long to see fruition? During Webb’s development, Tremblay notes that there were four U.S. presidential administrations and twenty-two government shutdowns. Webb also required ten brand new inventions before bending metal in the telescope, says Tremblay. They started polishing Webb’s mirrors before five of the ten technologies had been invented, he says. Webb also had nine layers of subcontractors with nine teams of lawyers, says Tremblay. Everything gets really expensive when you add in subcontracting layers; so, frankly, it’s no surprise that Webb took twenty years to build, he says. As for the intangible benefits such observatories offer? We live in a very fractured world, says Tremblay. But everyone is fascinated by what lies beyond; where we came from; where we’re going; and how we got here, he says. “These great observatories make us feel more like one civilization on our lonely, shining paradise of a planet,” Tremblay told me. “And there is immense power in that.” Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn . Check out my website or some of my other work here .
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