Friday, December 09, 2022

Here’s what the next 10 years of space science might look like

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey is basically a foretaste of the next 10 years of American space science. Experts compiled by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine gather decades of input from astronomers nationwide to recommend a prioritized list of projects to policymakers and federal agencies. Previous to-do lists are topped by specific big ticket items, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (SN: 10/6/21; SN: 8/13/10). But this year, astronomers are shaking things up.

The latest decade-long survey, which outlines the evolution of American astronomy and astrophysics from 2022 to 2032, recommends that NASA create a new program to develop several large space telescopes at once. Investing early in multiple mission concepts can limit the risk of individual missions becoming cumbersome and expensive, according to the November 4 report.

“These are very important recommendations,” said Scott Gaudi, an astronomer at Ohio State University who was not on the National Academic Committee that compiled the report. “They’re really focusing on the direction of astronomy in the United States – and kind of expanding the rest of the world because we have a lot of international partnerships.”

The proposed multi-mission program will reform how large space missions are planned. In the past, “you would pick a priority, you would build it, you would launch it, and then you would think about what the next priority was,” says Jonathan Fortney, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a member of the survey committee.

But space telescopes are becoming more ambitious, complex and expensive, says Fortney. The one-at-a-time model does not work as well as a single mission can take decades from blueprint to explosion.

Having several large projects in the works provides a bit of assurance. If scientists work on one mission for several years and realize that the technology is not there to make it fly in time, NASA could shift gears and send another telescope into space first, Fortney says. Developing multiple missions in parallel can also reduce the long waiting time between launches.

“I am so excited about it. It is like the best possible outcome, ”says Gaudi. This setup could boost confidence that large space missions can stay on budget and on schedule, he adds, given the huge cost overruns and delays that have plagued the long-awaited James Webb space telescope. “It’s a very new way of approaching things, and one that is really needed to advance astronomy in the next few decades.”

The first mission in the new program, according to the survey report, should be a space telescope that views the universe in infrared, optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, filling a gap left by other instruments. The Hubble Space Telescope looks primarily at optical and ultraviolet light, while the James Webb Telescope will see mainly the universe in infrared.

Illustration Of The James Webb Space Telescope
Astronomers’ top priority in the 2001 Decade Survey, the James Webb Space Telescope (illustrated), will finally be launched in December.Northrop Grumman

With a light-collecting region more than twice as wide as Hubble’s, these modern observatories can see planets in other galaxies that are one-tenth of a billionth as bright as their stars, and can have specific wavelengths of light , or spectra, teasing, emitted by exoplanets. The telescope could also observe stars, galaxies and other celestial objects. With an estimated price of $ 11 billion, the telescope was expected to be launched in the early 2040s.

Five years after launching that first flagship mission, NASA must begin developing both a far-infrared mission and an X-ray mission, each costing an estimated $ 3 billion to $ 5 billion, the survey recommends .

A far-infrared window to the universe could help astronomers study how water acts in the formation of planetary systems, says Fortney. A successor to NASA’s 22-year-old Chandra X-ray observatory could reveal new details of galaxy evolution, supermassive black hole behavior and other energetic phenomena (SN: 25/7/19).

On the ground, astronomers’ highest priorities, according to the Decade Survey, continue to build two large optical observatories, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii – although the latter project has faced controversy (SN: 8/5/20).

The survey also notes that it is time to replace the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Very Long Baseline Array of telescopic dishes spread across the United States. The proposed successor to this world-class radio observatory is the Next-Generation Very Large Array, which would be 10 times as sensitive.

Fortney is optimistic that NASA and other federal agencies will make the decade’s top priorities a reality. “The record was pretty good, in terms of the most prominent recommendations born,” he says. “I have a lot of confidence that these things will really happen.”

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