NASA's incredible plans for six space telescopes are all "better than Hubble"


Are we about to enter a new golden age of astronomy? Some argue that we are already in one, with the Hubble Space Telescope sending incredible images of the Universe since the 1990s. However, designing, planning, building and launching a space telescope can take 20 years. Hubble may now be on its last steps, but astronomers already have the James Webb Space Telescope (almost) ready to go, and even its successor, the WFIRST.

So, what comes next? With astronomers desperate to look closely at distant exoplanets in search of life, and technology advancing rapidly, plans are underway for no less than four more space telescopes.

Although they are not due to fly until 2035, later this year, Decadal Research will advise NASA which ones will have the green light. Anyway, what we know about the universe is bound to change dramatically.


The Webb, which is increasingly behind schedule, is due to be launched in 2021. Image credit: ESA, NASA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and HUDF team, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems / STScI / ATG medialab

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Known as Webb or JWST, this powerful space telescope is an international program of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Costing about $ 10 billion so far, Webb will have a set of mirrors that together measure 6.5 million.

This is much bigger than the Hubble telescope, but what sets the web apart from Hubble is not the size of the mirror, but what it can see. With a near-infrared camera and spectrograph, you will be able to spy back the primordial universe, but it is also 100 times more powerful; Think of it as being able to expand the universe to create much more detailed images than Hubble can manage.

Tragically, it was to be 1.5 million km from Earth so far, but delays mean that it is now not scheduled to be released until 2021. It is also designed to work between five and 10 years, however impressive Webb is probably it's not going to become as iconic as Hubble.


WFIRST is NASA's next space telescope after Webb. Image Credit: NASA

Long Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

Due to its launch in the mid-2020s, WFIRST is a $ 3.2 billion ($ 2.4 billion) NASA observatory that has the same Hubble mirror, but with a series of extraordinary improvements.

It is actually modeled on an old space telescope that never made it to space, which will be equipped with a wide-angle lens to give Hubble's field of vision 100x. It will also have a coronagraph, which will block light from a star to better see small Earth-like planets orbiting near its host sun. It will also look deep into the infrared so it will be better to see how the universe really is … and maybe to help figure out what dark matter and dark energy are.


The LUVOIR is the true "Hubble 2.0" and has been able to observe for several decades. Image Credit: NASA / GSFC

The Great UV / Optical / IR Surveyor (LUVOIR)

In the last decade, astronomers have found many thousands of exoplanets, but do they contain life? Is life everywhere in the universe? Or is there a limit?

LUVOIR will tell us. It is the great, physically, scientifically and financially. If WFIRST is a relatively affordable stop gap, the Large UV / Optical / IR Surveyor will become a true multipurpose Hubble, but 40 times more powerful.

Designed to be released in 2039 and observed for several decades, possibly with a 15m mirror (which would make it larger than any current ground-based telescope), it is the best, most expensive, fastest and most durable of all telescopes planned by astronomers.

Want to shoot distant exoplanets directly? LUVOIR. Study your atmosphere for bio-signatures like oxygen and methane? LUVOIR. Study closely the planets and moons of our solar system and compare their atmospheres with distant worlds? LUVOIR.

Studying the cosmos in ultraviolet, optical and infrared, LUVOIR will be the space observatory to beat all the others. It was even made in Lego, which is a start. However, at a price of 8 billion pounds (£ 6 billion) before the inevitable price increase, the LUVOIR could prove to be too costly for NASA to commit to. Also there is not a rocket big enough to take you into space.


HabEx will photograph the exoplanets directly. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

Observatory of Habitable Exoplanets (HabEx)

Kepler discovered 2,300 exoplanets – mostly huge "hot Jupiteres" – in only two small stretches of the night sky, proving that one-shot space telescopes can be totally revolutionary. However, while HabEx is designed primarily to directly photograph exoplanets, this is far from a basic proposition.

Designed to last five years, HabEx will be the first telescope capable of finding and studying Earth-like planets. These are incredibly tenuous objects (10 million times darker than their host star), so the headline feature in HabEx is a starshade. A flower-shaped folding device 72 m in diameter designed to orbit 100,000 km away from the telescope, but in line with it, the starshade will act as a coronagraph to suppress starlight so the telescope can find exoplanets more easily with its mirror of 4m.

In addition to identifying one-pixel-wide exoplanets, HabEx can study its atmospheres and look for signs of life. HabEx's starshade is a leap into the unknown, but its proponents argue that this could be easily aligned with Webb or Hubble.


The lynx will see the "invisible universe." Credit: NASA

Researcher for X-ray Lynx

The Lynx is another one-trick telescope, this time designed to "see" the invisible universe. What do we know about supermassive black holes in the early universe? Almost nothing except that they are much larger than they should be. Cue the Lynx telescope, which is an attempt to capture x-rays of black holes as well as supernovae and gas from galaxies. X-rays usually fly directly through mirrors and can not be detected from Earth, so Lynx will use a series of hundreds of small curved mirrors to divert the X-rays to the detectors.

Designed to be a successor to NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory around 2035, Lynx means … in fact, it means nothing. It's just that a lynx is "a symbol of great insight with the ability to see through solid objects to reveal the true nature of things." Fair.

The Lynx is best thought of as a telescope type partner for Webb.


Origins is cold & # 39; with a huge 9.1m mirror. Credit: NASA / GSFC

Space Telescope Origins (OST)

Where did the ingredients of life come from? How did water reach habitable exoplanets? A space telescope capable of seeing in the infrared, except 1,000 times more sensitive than any other telescope, the Origins is designed to study how the Universe has developed. It will also be super-fast, using a powerful 9.1-meter mirror to sweep the same area of ​​the sky in a single second that Webb would scan in two minutes. Uniquely, Origins would be useful to astronauts – to fix or upgrade it – because it will orbit near the moon where NASA is planning a Lunar Portal.

The origins may come back in time just 500 million years after the Big Bang to study how the Universe developed and where the types of carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen came from. He will also be able to detect the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets, study clouds of galactic gas and detect anything else that is weak and distant.

To do all of this, the Origins will need to be kept at a temperature of 4.5 Kelvin, which is about -268.6C / -451.6F.


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