Weekly Space Hangout: Oct 17, 2018 – Paul Geithner, Deputy Project Manager, JWST

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Paul Geithner, Deputy Project Manager – Technical for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center where he focuses on technical oversight, and the resolution and verification of technical issues. Paul last visited us on October 7, 2017, almost two years ago to the day, and tonight joins us to give us an update about JWST.

You can learn more about Paul by visiting https://jwst.nasa.gov/meet-geithner.html

Announcements:

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you’d like to join Dr. Paul Sutter and Dr. Pamela Gay on their Cosmic Stories in the SouthWest Tour in August 2019, you can find the information at astrotours.co/southwest.

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Weekly Space Hangout: Oct 10, 2018 – Sean Carroll

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Dr. Sean Carroll is a blogger, author, and theoretical physicist at Caltech where he investigates dark matter/dark energy, modified gravity, and multiple other topics in cosmology, field theory, and gravitation.

In addition to having written several books (most recently “”The Big Picture”” https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/bigpicture/), Sean has recorded lecture courses for The Great Courses, as well as producing many other online video and audio lectures.

In 2004, Sean launched his blog (https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/) and in July, 2018, announced his newest venture, his Mindscape Podcast (https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/)

You can lean more about Sean on his webpage: https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/

Announcements:

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you’d like to join Dr. Paul Sutter and Dr. Pamela Gay on their Cosmic Stories in the SouthWest Tour in August 2019, you can find the information at astrotours.co/southwest.

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Weekly Space Hangout: Oct 3, 2018 – Dr. David Warmflash

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

This week’s special guest is Dr. David Warmflash. Dr. Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Johnson Space Center, where he was a NASA astrobiology training fellow. He has been involved in science outreach for more than a decade, including having collaborated with The Planetary Society on studying the effects of the space environment on small organisms.

As a prolific freelance science communicator, David has had numerous articles published, his most recent being “”Should the Moon be Quarantined?”” which appears in the current issue of Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-the-moon-be-quarantined/).

You can find David on Twitter (@CosmicEvolution)

Announcements:

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you’d like to join Dr. Paul Sutter and Dr. Pamela Gay on their Cosmic Stories in the SouthWest Tour in August 2019, you can find the information at astrotours.co/southwest.

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Weekly Space Hangout: Sept 15, 2018: Live from AC500 Weekend!

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Pamela Gay (astronomycast.com / <a href=”https://cosmoquest.org/x>cosmoquest.org / @starstryder)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, celebrated their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. We recorded this episode live at the Recess Brewery in Edwardsville IL that weekend, with a live audience!

Announcements:
The Weekly Space Hangout will return regularly in October!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Our Book: The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos

The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain
The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain
The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain

Have you ever wanted to get into the hobby of astronomy but don’t know where to start? It can be challenging, especially with the bewildering array of telescopes, objects in the night sky, and techniques. Our new book, The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos, is all you need to get started.

It’s written by David Dickinson, the Universe Today reporter who covers skywatching and astronomical events, with additional material from Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, co-host of Astronomy Cast and host of the Guide to Space. There are also over a hundred photographs from contributing amateur astronomers, showing you what’s possible with some gear, skill and lots and lots of patience. And an additional forward from Dr. Pamela Gay, co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast.

In the book you’ll learn:

  • How to find your way in the night sky.
  • Choosing and using a variety of astronomy gear.
  • Following the Moon and the planets across the sky.
  • Finding the deep sky objects: nebulae, galaxies and star clusters.
  • What to see in the sky from season to season over an entire year.
  • Finding modern wanderers, like satellites, space stations and more.
  • Observing comets, asteroids and meteor showers.
  • Safely observing the Sun.
  • Astrophotography.
  • The top astronomy events from 2019 – 2024
  • Real science you can do and protecting the night sky.

Click here to buy a copy from Amazon. Or Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Due to be published on October 23, 2018.

Author Dave Dickinson writes:

After years of discussing the idea, and about a year’s worth of essays, outlines, revisions and re-revisions, we’re happy to announce that our first full astronomy book comes out on October 23rd, 2018 courtesy of Page Street Publishing.

We’re talking about the Universe Today Guide to Viewing the Night Sky: Everything You Need to Know to Become an Amateur Astronomer. It’s already up available for pre-order on Amazon now, and we jam-packed it full with the very latest tips from the fast-changing world of amateur astronomy.

We drew off of decades of experience as an amateur astronomer and science writer, to show you just how far the field has evolved in just a few short decades. When I was a kid growing up as a child of the 70s (1970s that is!), a 6-inch Newtonian was a big ‘scope, Jupiter had twelve moons and we took pictures on plastic strips coated with a gelatin emulsion known as ‘film’. Today, you can purchase a ‘scope and camera rig for your backyard observatory that would be the envy of many a university, and discover comets before bedtime online.

telescopes
Telescopes: large and small. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Why write one more ‘how to get started in astronomy’ guide? Hasn’t it all been done before? Well, our aim was not to write a textbook, but build something new, packed full of actionable information for backyard observers. If you’re a beginner, we’ll show you how to find your way around the sky, how to follow the planets and how things change overhead night to night, season to season and year to year. Even mid- to advanced observers may find out something new in the book, including, for example, how to hunt for and report a new comet discovery and tracking clandestine satellites.

The book is also chock of never before seen photos from dozens of astrophotographers from around the world. These cover the gamut of skill sets, from basic shots of the Moon and planets, to award-winning photos of eclipses and rocket launches. When it comes to astrophotography, our goal in the book was to take the beginner “over the hump” from doing basic star trail shots to deep sky astrophotography, a very steep learning curve to climb. Modern DSLRs, however, have made the entry into basic astrophotography easier than ever before.

lunar eclipse
The stages of a total lunar eclipse. Image credit and copyright: Zheng Zhi

What satellite is that? Want to build a planetary webcam? How about doing interferometry… from your backyard? Each chapter of the book is packed with projects galore. We’ve personally completed every project in the book over the years, (except for the Sun Funnel, which was done by Dr Pamela Gay), and we shared all of our experiences in the book.

Building the Very Small Optical Observatory (VSOO) out of a garden shed. Credit: Dave Dickinson

We also shared our own personal narrative throughout the book, a journey of several decades in amateur astronomy doing star parties, using telescopes, chasing eclipses and observing from around the world. The history of astronomy is a fascinating one, and the roles of professional and amateur astronomers blur, then merge as you travel back in time. We tell some of those fascinating tales in the book, from how we almost ended up with a planet named George, to whether or not Copernicus really saw Mercury, to why deep sky cataloger Charles Messier is buried in the same graveyard as rock star Jim Morrison. These fascinating asides give us insight in just how the largely untold story of the history amateur astronomy played out against the backdrop of human drama over the millennia.

Sun features
Features on the Sun. Image credit and copyright: Paul Stewart, labels by author.

One key challenge with writing a book is the long production trail of often a year or more. You want to write something that’s ageless, but we all want to stuff the very latest facts in discoveries in there, as well. We raced to add in the very latest space news (the passage of interstellar asteroid 1/I ‘Oumuamua through the inner solar system in late 2017 was a good example) all of which threatened to make the book obsolete before it ever hit the shelves. We grew up with seminal classics such as T.W. Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, Guy Ottewell’s annual Astronomical Calendar and Burnham’s 3 volume Celestial Handbook, all essential guides still sitting on our desktop that have stubbornly resisted digitization. We still marvel at these works and pick them up and peruse through them like old friends. It’s our fondest hope that our new book lights the same tiny spark of inspiration as those classics.

The book also contains some unique graphics, from the geometry of eclipses, to just how satellite orbits work and more. We worked hard to give the reader some unique perspectives with these graphics, something you won’t find anywhere else. We can also now say personally, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, that doing a simple “wall of words” novel versus text and graphics now feels like only doing half a book!

Eclipse geometry
The geometry of eclipses. Credit: Dave Dickinson.

Hopefully, this book will ignite the spark to get you out and observe, not only on every clear night, but to simply see the wonder and weirdness that surrounds us, everyday. Amateur astronomy is now nearly as much an online pursuit as it is a backyard hobby, and we lead the reader to those essential websites to show you where we’re looking when a new comet is discovered or when the Sun erupts in activity.

What’s next? Well, one aspect we really wanted to do up right was a set of concise constellation charts, covering the entire sky. We had to settle for basic overview charts to familiarize the reader with the sky by seasons and the overall layout of the constellations—otherwise the book would’ve been twice as long (and took twice the time) to write. Our hopes are to create a compendium star atlas for the book… soon.

Be sure to check out the Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos – out October 23rd, now up for pre-order, for inspiration and an introduction to the fascinating world of amateur astronomy.

Weekly Space Hangout on Hiatus until September!

The Weekly Space Hangout will be on hiatus July and August. Join us when we return in September!

Announcements:
Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

Weekly Space Hangout: June 27 2018: Space News Roundup

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

The Weekly Space Hangout will be on hiatus July and August. Join us when we return in September!

Announcements:
Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Weekly Space Hangout: June 20, 2018: Dr. Jillian Scudder’s Astroquizzical

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
This week, we welcome Dr. Jillian Scudder who will be telling us about her new book, Astroquizzical (Icon, June 2018) in which she takes us on an enthralling cosmic journey through space and time and locates our home planet within its own “family tree.” Our parent the Earth and its sibling planets in our solar system formed within the same gas cloud. Without our grandparent the Sun, we would not exist, and the Sun in turn relies on the Milky Way as its home. The Milky Way rests in a larger web of galaxies that traces its origins right back to tiny fluctuations in the very early Universe.

Jillian Scudder is an astrophysicist and assistant professor at Oberlin College. Her writing has also been published in Forbes, Quartz, Medium, and The Conversation. She was born in Sarasota, Florida, and has been on the move ever since. She completed her undergraduate degree at Macalester College in 2009, taking the unusual double major of Physics & French. She completed her Ph.D in astrophysics at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. In her spare time, she enjoys origami, coloring books, and video games.

You can order Astroquizzical here: https://www.amazon.com/Astroquizzical-Curious-Journey-Through-Cosmic/dp/1785783343
You can find out more about Dr. Scudder at her website.

Announcements:
Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

What Comes After James Webb and WFIRST? Four Amazing Future Space Telescopes

Artist's concept of the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) space telescope. Credits: NASA/GSFC

The Hubble Space Telescope has been in space for 28 years, producing some of the most beautiful and scientifically important images of the cosmos that humanity has ever taken. But let’s face it, Hubble is getting old, and it probably won’t be with us for too much longer.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is in the final stages of testing, and WFIRST is waiting in the wings. You’ll be glad to know there are even more space telescopes in the works, a set of four powerful instruments in design right now, which will be part of the next Decadal Survey, and helping to answer the most fundamental questions about the cosmos.

The James Webb Space Telescope inside a cleanroom at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credit: NASA/JSC

I know, I know, the James Webb Space Telescope hasn’t even reached space yet, and there could still be more delays as it goes through its current round of tests. At the time I’m recording this video, it’s looking like May 2020, but come on, you know there’ll be delays.

And then there’s WFIRST, the wide angle infrared space telescope that’s actually made of an old Hubble class telescope that the National Reconnaissance Office didn’t need any more. The White House wants to cancel it, Congress saved it, and now NASA is getting parts of it constructed. Assuming it doesn’t run into more delays, we’re looking at a launch in the mid-2020s.

NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will capture Hubble-quality images covering swaths of sky 100 times larger than Hubble does, enabling cosmic evolution studies. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres. Credits: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab
NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will capture Hubble-quality images covering swaths of sky 100 times larger than Hubble does. These enormous images will allow astronomers to study the evolution of the cosmos. Its Coronagraph Instrument will directly image exoplanets and study their atmospheres.
Credits: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

I’ve actually done an episode about supertelescopes, and talked about James Webb and WFIRST, so if you want to learn more about those observatories, check that out first.

Today we’re going to go further into the future, to look at the next next generation telescopes. The ones that could be launched after the telescope that gets launched after the telescope that comes next.

Before I dig into these missions, I need to talk about the Decadal Survey. This is a report created by the US National Academy of Sciences for Congress and NASA. It’s essentially a wishlist from scientists to NASA, defining the biggest questions they have in their field of science.

This allows Congress to assign budgets and NASA to develop mission ideas that will help fulfill as many of these science goals as possible.

These surveys are done once every decade, bringing together committees in Earth science, planetary science, and astrophysics. They pitch ideas, argue, vote and eventually agree on a set of recommendations which will define science priorities over the next decade.

We’re currently in the 2013-2022 Decadal Survey period, so in just a few years, the next survey will be due, and define the missions from 2023-2032. I know, that really sounds like the distant future, but time’s actually running out to get the band back together.

If you’re interested, I’ll put a link to the last Decadal Survey, it’s a fascinating document and you’ll get a better sense of how missions come together.

We’re still a few years away from the final document, but serious proposals are in the planning stages for next generation space telescopes, and they are awesome. Let’s talk about them.

HabEx

The first mission we’ll look at is HabEx, or the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission. This is a spacecraft that will directly photograph planets orbiting other stars. It’ll be targeting all kinds of planets, from hot Jupiters to super Earths, but its primary target will be to photograph Earth-like exoplanets and measure their atmospheres.

Wavelengths of light that can help suggest biospheres. Credit: NASA/JPL
Wavelengths of light that can help suggest biospheres. Credit: NASA/JPL

In other words, HabEx is going to try and detect signals of life in planets orbiting other stars.

In order to get this done, HabEx needs to block the light from the star, so that much fainter planets nearby can be revealed. It’ll have one and maybe two ways to do this.

The first is using a coronagraph. This is a tiny dot that sits inside the telescope itself, which is positioned in front of the star and blocks its light. The remaining light passing through the telescope comes from fainter objects around the star and can be imaged by the instrument’s sensor.

The telescope has a special deformable mirror that can be tweaked and tuned until the fainter planets come into view.

Here’s an example of a coronagraph in use, on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. The central star is hidden, revealing the dimmer dust disk around it. Here’s a direct image of a brown dwarf orbiting a star.

This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus. It was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014. It shows not only the ring itself with great clarity, but also reveals the power of SPHERE to reduce the glare from the very bright star — the key to finding and studying exoplanets in future.
This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus. It was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014. It shows not only the ring itself with great clarity, but also reveals the power of SPHERE to reduce the glare from the very bright star — the key to finding and studying exoplanets in future.

And this is one of the most dramatic videos I think I’ve ever seen, with 4 Jupiter-sized worlds orbiting around the star HR 8799. It’s a bit of a trick, the researchers animated the motion of the planets in between observations, but still, wow.

The second method of blocking the light will be to use a Starshade. This is a completely separate spacecraft that looks like a pinwheel. It flies tens of thousands of kilometers away from the telescope, and when it’s positioned perfectly, it blocks the light from the central star, while allowing light from the planets to leak around the edges.

The trick with a Starshade is those petals, which create a softer edge so the light waves from the fainter planet is less bent. This creates a very dark shadow that should have the best chance at revealing planets.

Artist's concept of the prototype starshade, a giant structure designed to block the glare of stars so that future space telescopes can take pictures of planets. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s concept of the prototype starshade, a giant structure designed to block the glare of stars so that future space telescopes can take pictures of planets. Credit: NASA/JPL

Unlike most missions, Starshades like this can be used with any observatory in space. So, Hubble, James Webb or any other observatory could take advantage of this instrument.
We’ve always complained about how we can only see a fraction of the planets out there using the transit or radial velocity method because of how things line up. But with a mission like HabEx, planets can be seen direction, in any configuration.

In addition to this primary mission, HabEx will also be used for a variety of astrophysics, like observing the early Universe, and studying the chemicals of the biggest stars before and after they explode as supernovae.

Lynx

Next up, Lynx, which will be NASA’s next generation X-ray telescope. Surprisingly, it’s not an acronym, it’s just named after the animal. In various cultures Lynxes were thought to have the supernatural ability to see the true nature of things.

X-rays are at the higher end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and they’re blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, so you need a space telescope to be able to see them. Right now, NASA has its Chandra X-ray Observatory, and ESA is working on its ATHENA mission, due for launch in 2028.

Lynx Mission Concept. Credit: NASA
Lynx Mission Concept. Credit: NASA

Lynx will act as a partner to the James Webb Space Telescope, peering out to the edge of the observable Universe, revealing the first generations of supermassive black holes, and helping to chart their formation and mergers over time. It’ll see radiation coming from the hot gas from the early cosmic web, as the first galaxies were coming together.

And then it’ll be used to examine the kinds of objects Chandra, XMM Newton and other X-ray observatories focus on: pulsars, galaxy collisions, collapsars, supernovae, black holes, and more. Even normal stars can give off X-ray flares that tell us more about them.

The vast majority of the Universe’s matter is located in clouds of gas as hot as a million Kelvin. If you want to see the Universe as it truly is, you want to look at it in X-rays.

X-ray telescopes are different from visible light observatories like Hubble. You can’t just have a mirror that bounces X-rays. Instead, you use grazing-incidence mirrors which can slightly redirect photons that hit them, funneling them down to a detector.

Artist illustration of the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra is the most sensitive X-ray telescope ever built. Credit: NASA/CXC/NGST
Artist illustration of the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra is the most sensitive X-ray telescope ever built. Credit: NASA/CXC/NGST

With a 3 meter outer mirror, the starting part of the funnel, it’ll provide 50-100 times the sensitivity with 16 times the field of view, gathering photons at 800 times the speed of Chandra.

I’m not sure what else to say. It’ll be a monster X-ray observatory. Trust me, astronomers think this is a very good idea.

Origins Space Telescope

Next, the Origins Space Telescope or OST. Like James Webb, and the Spitzer Space Telescope, OST is going to be an infrared telescope, designed to observe some of the coolest objects in the Universe. But it’s going to be even bigger. While James Webb has a primary mirror 6.5 meters across, the OST mirror will be 9.1 meters across.

Imagine a telescope almost as big as the largest ground telescopes on Earth, but out in space. In space.

Artist's concept of the  the Origins Space Telescope (OST). Credits: NASA/GSFC
Artist’s concept of the the Origins Space Telescope (OST). Credits: NASA/GSFC

It won’t just be big, it’ll be cold.

NASA was able to cool down Spitzer to just 5 Kelvin – that’s 5 degrees above absolute zero, and just a little warmer than the background temperature of the Universe. They’re planning to get Origins down to 4 Kelvin. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge engineering challenge.

Instead of just cooling the spacecraft with liquid helium like they did with Spitzer, they’ll need to take the heat out in stages, with reflectors, radiators, and finally a cryocooler around the instruments themselves.

With a huge, cold infrared telescope, Origins will push beyond James Webb’s view of the formation of the first galaxies. It’ll look to the era when the first stars were forming, a time that astronomers call the Dark Ages.

It’ll see the formation of planetary systems, dust disks and directly observe the atmospheres of other planets looking for biosignatures, evidence of life out there.

Three exciting missions, that’ll push our knowledge of the Universe forward. But I’ve saved the biggest, most ambitious telescope for last

LUVOIR

LUVOIR, or the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor. James Webb is going to be a powerful telescope, but it’s an infrared instrument designed to look at cooler objects in the Universe, like red-shifted galaxies at the beginning of time, or newly forming planetary systems. The Origins Space Telescope will be a better version of James Webb.

LUVOIR will be the true successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. It’ll be a huge instrument capable of seeing in infrared, visible light and ultraviolet.

Artist's concept of the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) space telescope. Credits: NASA/GSFC
Artist’s concept of the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) space telescope. Credits: NASA/GSFC

There are two designs in the works. One which is 8-meters across and could launch on a heavy-lift vehicle like the Falcon Heavy. And another design that would use the Space Launch System that measures 15-meters across. That’s 50% bigger than the biggest Earth-based telescope. Remember, Hubble is only 2.6 meters.

It’ll have a wide field of view and a suite of filters and instruments that astronomers can use to observe whatever they want. It’ll be equipped with a coronograph like we talked about earlier, to directly observe planets and obscure their stars, a spectrograph to figure out what chemicals are present in exoplanet atmospheres, and more.

LUVOIR will be a general purpose instrument, which astronomers will use to make discoveries across the fields of astrophysics and planetary science. But some of its capabilities will include: directly observing exoplanets and searching for biosignatures, categorizing all the different kinds of exoplanets out there, from hot Jupiters to super Earths.

It’ll be able to observe objects within the Solar System better than anything else – if we don’t have a spacecraft there, LUVOIR will be a pretty good view. For example, here’s a view of Enceladus from Hubble, compared to the view from LUVOIR.

Enceladus seen from Hubble and LUVOIR. Credit: NASA
Enceladus seen from Hubble and LUVOIR. Credit: NASA

It will be able to look out anywhere in the Universe, to see much smaller structures than Hubble. It’ll see the first galaxies, first stars, and help measure the concentrations of dark matter across the Universe.

Astronomers still don’t fully understand what happens when stars gather enough mass to ignite. LUVOIR will look into star forming regions, peer through the gas and dust and see the earliest moments of star formation as well as the planets orbiting them.

Have I got you totally and completely excited about the future of astronomy? Good. But here’s comes the bad news. There’s almost no chance reality will match this fantasy.

Earlier this month NASA announced that mission planners working on these space telescopes will need to limit their budgets to between three and five billion dollars. Until now, planners didn’t have any guidelines, they were to just design instruments that could get the science done.

Engineers had been working on mission plans that could easily cross $5 billion for HabEx, Lynx and OST, and were considering a much larger $20 billion for LUVOIR.

Even though Congress has been pushing for surprisingly big budgets for NASA, the space agency wants its planners to be conservative. And when you consider just how over budget and late James Webb has become, it’s not entirely surprising.

James Webb was originally supposed to cost between one and three point five billion dollars and launch between 2007 and 2011. Now it looks like 2020 for a launch, the costs have broken past a Congress mandated $8.8 billion budget, and it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to be done.

In a recent shake test, engineers found washers and screws that had shaken out of the telescope. This isn’t like an IKEA shelf with leftover parts. These pieces are important.

Even though it’s been saved from the chopping block, the WFIRST Telescope is estimated to be $3.9 billion, up from its original $2 billion budget.

One, two or maybe even all of these telescopes will eventually get built. This is what the scientists think are most important to make the next discoveries in astronomy, but get ready for budget battles, cost overruns and stretching timelines. We’ll know better when all the studies come together in 2019.

It would take some kind of engineering miracle to have all four telescopes come together, on time and on budget, to blast to space together in 2035. I’ll keep you updated.

Weekly Space Hangout: June 13, 2018: Stella Kafka, Director of the AAVSO

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Stella Kafka is the Director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.

Announcements:

Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

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