Astronomers Debut Vision For Future Space Telescopes

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In a meeting today at the American Museum of Natural History, members of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) presented a roadmap to a powerful space observatory that would allow for greater exploration of planets outside of our solar system, including signs of life.

Visualization of a simulated galaxy viewed by Hubble, JWST, and the proposed High-Definition Space Telescope. © D. Ceverino, C. Moody, and G. Snyder.

Visualization of a simulated galaxy viewed by Hubble, JWST, and the proposed High-Definition Space Telescope.

© D. Ceverino, C. Moody, and G. Snyder.


At its heart is AURA’s vision for a High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST), described by some as a “super-Hubble,” that could improve on that storied telescope’s capabilities by a factor of more than 100. The HDST would be the centerpiece of a space observatory that would also host a suite of specialized instruments, including coronagraphs that can block light from stars and allow astronomers to glimpse nearby objects such as exoplanets.

A direct, to-scale, comparison between the primary mirrors of Hubble, JWST, and HDST. ©AURA

A direct, to-scale, comparison between the primary mirrors of Hubble, JWST, and HDST.

©AURA


One of the HDST’s prime objectives would be to seek out and understand Earth-like expolanets—and, potentially, to provide the first observational evidence for life beyond Earth by analyzing components like water vapor, oxygen, methane, and other signatures that could indicate an active biosphere. 

“The raison d’être of the proposed telescope is to seek signatures of life elsewhere, and it will also explore the history of the universe from cosmic birth to today’s cosmos,” reads an afterword to the report by Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Rebecca Oppenheimer, and Michael Shara, curators in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics. “In its lifetime, though, the telescope proposed in this report will almost certainly find “something”—perhaps several “somethings”—that are as unexpected and different from everything we know, as dark energy is from the rest of the universe.”

Why start planning now for a space telescope that could go online in the 2030s? After all, Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, isn’t due to launch until 2018. According to Shara, who spent years working on Hubble at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the AURA report can jumpstart the conversation about the next generation of tools for astronomers.

“If you don’t get going now, you’re going to have a longer gap between the end of the James Webb Space Telescope and whatever comes next,” Shara told reporters at a press briefing.