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

Are we about to enter a new golden age of astronomy? Some would say that we are already one, the Hubble Space Telescope sending back incredible images of the Universe since the 1990s. However, the design, planning, construction and launch of a space telescope can take 20 years. Hubble may be about to finish, but astronomers already have the James Webb space telescope (almost) ready to work, and even his successor, WFIRST.

So what comes next? Astronomers desperate to take a closer look at distant exoplanets in search of life, and technology evolving rapidly, projects are underway for no less than four additional space telescopes.

Although they plan to fly only in 2035, the decennial survey will later tell NASA the names of those who will be given the go-ahead. Anyway, what we know about the universe is about to change drastically.


The launch of Webb, still delayed, is now scheduled to take place in 2021. Credit: ESA, NASA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF team, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems / STScI / ATG medialab

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Nicknamed 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 US dollars up to now, the Webb will have a set of mirrors that together measure $ 6.5 million.

It's much bigger than the Hubble telescope, but what sets Web Hubble apart is not the size of the mirror, but what it can see. With a near infrared camera and a spectrograph, he will be able to look back into the primitive universe, but he is also 100 times more powerful. imagine that you can zoom in on the universe to create much more detailed images than Hubble can handle.

Tragically, it was supposed to be 1.5 million kilometers from Earth to date, but delays mean that it is not scheduled to be launched until 2021. It is also designed to only work for five to ten years. As impressive as Webb is, it will probably not be used. become as iconic as Hubble.


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

Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)

The WFIRST, due to be launched in the mid-2020s, is a $ 3.2 billion NASA observatory (about £ 2.4 billion, $ 4.5 billion Australian) with the same mirror as Hubble but with a number of exquisite improvements.

It is actually an old space telescope that has never been in space and will be equipped with a wide angle lens to give it a field of view. 100 times bigger than Hubble's. He will also have a coronograph, which will allow him to block the light of a star to better see the small planets similar to the Earth orbiting their sun host. It will also look deep into the infrared to better see what the universe really looks like … and perhaps help to understand what dark matter and black energy are.


LUVOIR is the true "Hubble 2.0" and has been observed for several decades. Image credit: NASA / GSFC

The great UV / optical / IR geometer (LUVOIR)

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

LUVOIR will tell us. It's the big, physically, scientifically and financially. If WFIRST is a relatively affordable midway space, the great UV / optical / infrared geometer will become a true all-in-one like Hubble, but 40 times more powerful.

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

Do you want to take pictures of distant exoplanets directly? LUVOIR. Study their atmosphere in search of bio-signatures like oxygen and methane? LUVOIR. Study carefully the planets and moons of our solar system and compare their atmospheres to distant worlds? LUVOIR.

Studying the cosmos in ultraviolet, optical and infrared, LUVOIR will be the observatory of space to beat all others. This was even done in Lego, which is a start. However, at a reasonable price of $ 8 billion (about £ 6 billion, $ 11 billion) before the inevitable price hike, LUVOIR may well prove to be too costly for NASA. In addition, there is currently no rocket big enough to transport it in space.


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

Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx)

Kepler discovered 2,300 exoplanets – mostly huge "hot Jupiters" – in just two small areas of the night sky, proving that one-turn space telescopes can be totally revolutionary. However, although HabEx is mainly designed to shoot exoplanets directly, this is far from being a basic proposition.

Designed to last five years, HabEx will be the first telescope to locate and study Earth-like planets. These are incredibly weak objects (10 million times weaker than their host star), so the title feature on HabEx is a cloud of stars. A 72m diameter, flower-shaped folding device designed to orbit 100,000km of the telescope, but aligned with it, the star umbrella will act as a coronograph to remove light from the stars so that the telescope can find more easily exoplanets with his mirror of 4 m.

In addition to identifying the exoplanets of a pixel, HabEx will be able to study their atmosphere and look for signs of life. The HabEx starshade is a bit of a leap into the unknown, but its proponents claim that it could just as easily be aligned with Webb or Hubble.


Lynx will see "the invisible universe". Credit: NASA

Lynx X-ray Surveyor

The Lynx is another one-turn telescope, designed this time to "see" the invisible universe. What do we know about super massive black holes in the primitive universe? Almost nothing except that they are much bigger than they should be. Cue the Lynx telescope, which attempts to capture the X-rays of black holes, as well as supernovae and gas galaxies. X-rays usually go through mirrors, and can not be detected at all on Earth. Lynx will use hundreds of tiny curved mirrors to deflect X-rays from detectors.

Designed to succeed NASA's Chandra X-ray observatory around 2035, Lynx represents … in reality, it represents 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". This is enough.

Lynx is best viewed as a kind of Webb partner telescope.


Origins is "the cold" with a massive mirror of 9.1 m. Credit: NASA / GSFC

Origins Space Telescope (OST)

Where do the ingredients of life come from? How did water come into habitable exoplanets? Space telescope capable of seeing in the infrared except 1000 times more sensitive than any other telescope, Origins is designed to study the development of the universe. It will also be very fast, using a powerful 9.1m mirror to scan the same area of ​​sky in a second that Webb would scan in two minutes. Unique, astronauts could use Origins – to repair or improve it – because it would be in orbit near the moon, where NASA plans a lunar bridge.

The origins can see 500 million years after the Big Bang to study the development of the Universe and determine the origin of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. It will also be able to detect the chemical composition of the atmosphere of the exoplanets, study the galactic gas clouds and detect anything that is dark and distant.

To do all this, Origins will have to be maintained at a temperature of 4.5 Kelvin, which corresponds to about -268.6C / -451.6F.

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