The James Webb Space Telescope was a decade late and over budget by $ 10 billion, but it was finally launched.
Now that the telescope is in space, what’s next for astrophysics performed from beyond the Earth’s surface? Here are five future missions to get excited about.
Related: How the James Webb Space Telescope Works in Pictures
Roman Nancy Grace telescope
Named after Nancy Grace Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer, this telescope was originally called the Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope, or WFIRST. Its main purpose is to map large swaths of the universe to study dark energy.
(The original name is also a clever play on words: in the mathematical equations that cosmologists use to describe dark energy, its equation of state, or relationship between pressure and density, is represented by “w.” mission is to study dark energy, “w” comes first, hence the name WFIRST.)
Expected to launch in 2027, the telescope will examine millions of galaxies, building a map of our cosmological neighborhood. Astronomers hope to use the distribution of galaxies to discover the evolution of dark energy. As a bonus, the instrument will also use gravitational microlenses – small changes in the light from background stars – to discover potentially millions of exoplanets.
(Image credit: NASA)
The James Webb Space Telescope is like an improved version of the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s so large that it can’t even fit into a single rocket fairing without some really complicated, origami-like folding of its mirror segments.
The Large Ultraviolet / Optical / Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) is even larger, with a mirror diameter of approximately 50 feet (over 15 meters). Astronomers hope that this general-purpose telescope can accomplish a variety of astronomical science goals, such as observing the cloud tops of Jupiter with a resolution of 15 miles (25 kilometers) and looking for biosignatures in the atmospheres of other planets.
LUVOIR is only in the design phase and is competing with other observatories for priority funding. But if it happens, the mega space telescope will launch sometime in the 2030s.
Finding habitable planets is a pretty hot topic in astronomy. The discovery of an Earth 2.0 would be a gold mine, helping us understand how common life is in the universe and perhaps even heralding the discovery that we are not alone. To do that, astronomers look for close copies of Earth – planets with similar masses and compositions to our home world that orbit sun-like stars at just the right distance to allow for liquid water.
But finding the planet is only the beginning; we need to study its atmosphere, looking for biosignatures, which are chemical by-products of life. An abundance of oxygen, for example, could be a sign that photosynthesis is active in that world, and a large amount of methane could show us that there are bacteria-like organisms there.
Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) hopes to do just that. Although it is also competing for funding, proponents hope to launch HabEx in 2035. What makes HabEx shine is its star shadow, a huge flying disc that would block light from individual stars, allowing the telescope to directly image exoplanets.
The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) is a space-based gravitational wave observatory. Run by the European Space Agency, it will target gravitational wave sources that ground-based detectors cannot, such as the collision of supermassive black holes and the mergers of compact objects within our own galaxy. LISA is a formation of three satellites, all orbiting the sun together while maintaining a separation of about 1.5 miles (2.5 million km).
By continuously bouncing lasers from each other, the satellites can measure any slight changes in their distance, especially if gravitational waves arrive. The observatory is scheduled for launch in 2034.
There was a time before the stars. The first hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang were appropriately called the “Middle Ages.” This era has not been observed with any telescope … because, well, it was dark.
But floating through that darkness were tendrils of neutral hydrogen. Neutral hydrogen emits a very particular type of radiation, emitting light at exactly 2.1 centimeters (0.83 inches). That radiation has sailed through the universe for all these eons and today, 13 billion years later, it has redshifted to have a wavelength of around 2 meters (6.6 feet).
That’s in the radio spectrum, which means that any attempt to detect this type of radiation is overwhelmed by our terrestrial radio talk. So that’s where Dark Ages Radio Explorer (DARE) comes in.
DARE is currently in the design phase and proponents hope to launch it in the next few years. It is a relatively simple observatory, basically a car antenna in space, but its location will be unique: it will orbit the moon. The far side of the moon is the only known place in the inner solar system that is known to be free from human-generated radio interference. It is the quietest place nearby and the best place to hunt down the cosmic Dark Ages.
Learn more by listening to the “Ask A Spaceman” podcast, available on iTunes and askaspaceman.com. Ask your own question on Twitter using #AskASpaceman or by following Paul @PaulMattSutter and facebook.com/PaulMattSutter. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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