US astronomers want a giant space-based telescope to search for exoplanets

Image credit: TMT International Observatory

US astronomers and astrophysicists have released a new report that aims to guide the next decade of research. A new report is written every 10 years. The new version, Astro2020, is 600 pages long and draws from hundreds of white papers. It also took years of deliberation to settle on the final report.

Among the 600 pages are three key scientific priorities for space exploration and research for the next decade. One of the three priorities is to identify and characterize Earth-like planets outside of our solar system. Another priority is understanding what happened during the earliest moments of the universe through continued research into black holes, white dwarfs and stellar explosions. The final priority is to use spectroscopy to study the structures surrounding galaxies to understand their origin better.

Per the Astro2020 report, identifying Earth-like planets requires the US federal government to invest in a pair of major projects: the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope. Without investment, the projects are reportedly poised to fail. However, it isn’t clear how much money would be required.

The committee’s report wants NASA to create a new program to alter how projects are developed. Traditionally, projects take years of planning and work to be approved. Gabriela González, a professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University and member of the report’s steering committee, said, ‘Instead of recommending and approving missions that will take that many years, what we recommend to NASA is to create a line that we call the Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program that designs and develops technology for missions before they are approved.’

The proposed program would develop technologies far in advance of space missions. Now, technologies are developed following mission approval, which increases the time it takes for a project to go from early development to launch. The committee thinks that the Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program would allow NASA to simultaneously work on more large-scale projects.

‘This photograph of the Hubble Space Telescope was taken by the space shuttle Atlantis’ robotic arm during Servicing Mission 4.’ Text and image credit: NASA

The first mission in the program will be a new space-based telescope that will use high-contrast imaging to search for and investigate exoplanets. Per MIT Technology Review, the new telescope will be larger than the Hubble Space Telescope and ‘able to observe planets that are fainter than their star by a factor of at least 10 billion.’ The telescope will forever change how we observe the known universe and, ideally, increase the size of the known universe itself.

Unfortunately, the new space-based telescope remains a long way off. The project is estimated to cost around $11B and, assuming NASA approves it, won’t launch until the early 2040s.

Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii

On the ground, the committee recommends continued investment into the US Extremely Large Telescope Program, which currently includes three elements: the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii and the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Arizona. The committee recommends that the Karl Jansky Very Large Array and the Very Long Baseline Array be replaced by the Next-Generation Very Large Array in the next decade. You can read more about the Astro2020 survey and the US Extremely Large Telescope Program here.

With continued investment, the report believes that the US will be able to maintain its position as a leader in ground-based astronomy. For more information, click here.