What’s Coming After Hubble and James Webb? The High-Definition Space Telescope

Decades after its momentous launch, the ever popular Hubble Space Telescope merrily continues its trajectory in low-earth orbit, and it still enables cutting-edge science. Astronomers utilized Hubble and its instruments over the years to obtain iconic images of the Crab Nebula, the Sombrero Galaxy, the Ultra Deep Field, and many others that captured the public imagination. Eventually its mission will end, and people need to plan for the next telescope and the next next telescope. But what kinds of space exploration do scientists want to engage in 20 years from now? What technologies will they need to make it happen?

A consortium of physicists and astronomers attempt to answer these questions as they put forward and promote their bold proposal for a giant high-resolution telescope for the next generation, which would observe numerous planets, stars, galaxies and the distant universe in stunning detail. In addition to encouraging support for scientific discoveries that could be made, the telescope’s advocates also must investigate the potential technical challenges involved in constructing and launching it. An event organized at a SPIE optics and photonics conference in San Diego, California on Tuesday served as another step in this long-term process.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), an influential organization of astronomers and physicists from 39 mostly US-based institutions, which operates telescopes and observatories for NASA and the National Science Foundation, laid out its proposal of a multi-wavelength High-Definition Space Telescope (HDST) in a new report last month. Julianne Dalcanton of the University of Washington and Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—veteran astronomers with impressive knowledge and experience with galactic and planetary science—led the committee who researched and wrote the 172-page document.

“It’s the science community staking out a vision for what’s the next thing to do,” said Phil Stahl, former SPIE president and senior physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Speaking at the optics and photonics conference about the telescope provided “an opportunity to speak to the people who will be building it,” as many of the audience work on instrumentation.

As the HDST’s name suggests, its 12-meter wide segmented mirror would give it much higher resolution than any current or upcoming telescopes, allowing astronomers to focus on many Earth-like “exoplanets” orbiting stars outside our solar system up to 100 light-years away, resolve stars even in the Andromeda Galaxy, and image faraway galaxies dating back 10 billion years of cosmic time into our universe’s past. The 24x increased sharpness compared to Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope is similar to the dramatic improvement of an UltraHD TV over a standard television, according to Marc Postman, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)
A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)

In particular, “exoplanets are the main science driver for the HDST,” said Seager. “Are there other planets like Earth, and are there signs of life on them?” Her and her colleagues’ excitement came through as she explained that, if the telescope comes to fruition, they predict it would find dozens, if not hundreds, of Earth-like planets in the habitable zone. They would look for evidence of oxygen and water vapor as well, transforming astronomers’ knowledge of such planets, currently limited to only 1 or 2 candidates detected by the Kepler telescope.

The Hubble telescope required 20 years of planning, technological development, and budget allocations before it was launched in 1990. Planning for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which was also first proposed by AURA, began not long afterward. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but many years of preparations and research will come to fruition as it is set to launch in 2018. Its scientists and engineers hope that, like Hubble, it will produce spectacular images with its infrared cameras, become a household name, and expand our understanding of the universe.

Nevertheless, James Webb has been plagued by a ballooning budget and numerous delays, and Congress nearly terminated it in 2011. The telescope proved controversial even among some astronomers and space exploration advocates. As scientists develop the next generation of telescopes, JWST remains the multi-ton multi-billion-dollar elephant in the room. David Redding of Jet Propulsion Laboratory was quick to point out that, “for Hubble, almost every technology had to be invented!” For the proposed HDST, the task appears less daunting.

Nonetheless, scientists have technological challenges and difficult questions to look forward to. For example, they must choose among multiple competing designs and consider different methods for getting the telescope into space, possibly utilizing the Space Launch System (SLS). They also expect to leverage research on JWST’s sunshield, which will be necessary to keep the proposed telescope at an extremely stable temperature, and on its detectors, when developing optimized gigapixel-class cameras. Vibrational stability on the order of one trillionth of a meter will present an additional challenge for them.

If the astronomical community comes on board and prioritizes this project for the next decade, then it likely would be designed and constructed in the 2020s and then launched in the 2030s. In the meantime, they will need major investments of funding, research and development. According to Seager, it will certainly be worth it “to observe the whole universe at 100 parsec-scale resolution” and “discover dozens of Earths.” Adding emphasis, “that’s the killer app,” Postman concluded.

Scientists Map the Dark Matter Around Millions of Galaxies

This week, scientists with the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration released the first in a series of detailed maps charting the distribution of dark matter inferred from its gravitational effects. The new maps confirm current theories that suggest galaxies will form where large concentrations of dark matter exist. The new data show large filaments of dark matter where visible galaxies and galaxy clusters lie and cosmic voids where very few galaxies reside.

“Our analysis so far is in line with what the current picture of the universe predicts,” said Chihway Chang from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, a co-leader of the analysis. “Zooming into the maps, we have measured how dark matter envelops galaxies of different types and how together they evolve over cosmic time.”

The research and maps, which span a large area of the sky, are the product of a massive effort of an international team from the US, UK, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Brazil. They announced their new results at the American Physical Society (APS) meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

According to cosmologists, dark matter particles stream and clump together over time in particular regions of the cosmos, often in the same places where galaxies form and cluster. Over time, a “cosmic web” develops across the universe. Though dark matter is invisible, it expands with the universe and feels the pull of gravity. Astrophysicists then can reconstruct maps of it by surveying millions of galaxies, much like one might infer the shifting orientation of a flock of birds from its shadow moving along the ground.

DES scientists created the maps with one of the world’s most powerful digital cameras, the 570-megapixel Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is particularly sensitive to the light from distant galaxies. It is mounted on the 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope, located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile. Each of its images records data from an area 20 times the size of the moon as seen from earth.

In addition, DECam collects data nearly ten times faster than previous machines. According to David Bacon, at the University of Portsmouth’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, “This allows us to stare deeper into space and see the effects of dark matter and dark energy with greater clarity. Ironically, although these dark entities make up 96% of our universe, seeing them is hard and requires vast amounts of data.”

The silvered dome of the Blanco 4-meter telescope holds the DECam at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. (Photo credit: T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)
The silvered dome of the Blanco 4-meter telescope holds the DECam at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. (Photo credit: T. Abbott and NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The telescope and its instruments enable precise measurements utilizing a technique known as “gravitational lensing.” Astrophysicists study the small distortions and shear of images of galaxies due to the gravitational pull of dark matter around them, similar to warped images of objects in a magnifying glass, except that the lensed galaxies observed by the DES scientists are at least 6 billion light-years away.

Chang and Vinu Vikram (Argonne National Laboratory) led the analysis, with which they traced the web of dark matter in unprecedented detail across 139 square degrees of the southern hemisphere. “We measured the barely perceptible distortions in the shapes of about 2 million galaxies to construct these new maps,” Vikram said. This amounts to less then 0.4% of the whole sky, but the completed DES survey will map out more than 30 times this area over the next few years.

They submitted their research paper for publication in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the DES team publicly released it as part of a set of papers on the arXiv.org server on Tuesday.

The precision and detail of these large contiguous maps being produced by DES scientists will allow for tests of other cosmological models. “I’m really excited about what these maps will tell us about dark matter in galaxy clusters especially with respect to theories of modified gravity,” says Robert Nichol (University of Portsmouth). Einstein’s model of gravity, general relativity, could be incorrect on large cosmological scales or in the densest regions of the universe, and ongoing research with the Dark Energy Survey will facilitate investigations of this.

How do Gas and Stars Build a Galaxy?

When we look up at the night sky outside of the bright city, we can see a dazzling array of stars and galaxies. It is more difficult to see the clouds of gas within galaxies, however, but gas is required to form new stars and allow galaxies to grow. Although gas makes up less than 1% of the matter in the universe, “it’s the gas that drives the evolution of the galaxy, not the other way around,” says Felix “Jay” Lockman of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).

With radio telescopes and surveys such as the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and the Arecibo Legacy Fast ALFA (ALFALFA) survey, Lockman and other astronomers are learning more about the role of gas in galaxy formation. They presented their results at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in San Jose.

Although we have an excellent view of our part of the Milky Way, and we can tell that it has a disk-shaped structure — that is the origin of its name, after all — it is not so simple to study how the galaxy formed. Lockman described the situation with an analogy: if you were trying to understand how your own house was built without leaving it, you would look and listen throughout the house and you would look out the window to learn what you can from your neighbors’ homes. Andromeda is the Milky Way’s largest neighbor, and they both have “satellite” galaxies traveling around them, some of which appear to have gas.

In addition, Lockman and his colleagues found clouds of gas between Andromeda and one of its satellites, Triangulum, which could be a “source of fuel for future star formation” for the galaxies. As a dramatic example of high-velocity clouds, Lockman presented new GBT images of the Smith Cloud, which was first discovered in 1963 by a student in the Netherlands. The Smith Cloud is a newcomer to the Milky Way and could provide enough gas to form a million stars and solar systems. Based on its speed and trajectory, “we think in a few million years, splash!” as it collides with our galaxy.

Artist's impression of the Smith Cloud approaching the Milky Way, with which it will collide in approximately 30 million years. The cloud's image from the GBT can be seen at bottom. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF
Artist’s impression of the Smith Cloud approaching the Milky Way, with which it will collide in approximately 30 million years. The cloud’s image from the GBT can be seen at bottom. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

Kartik Sheth, another scientist at NRAO, continued with a description of astronomers’ current state of knowledge of the assembly of disk and spiral galaxies, of which the Milky Way and Andromeda are only two examples. Spiral galaxies typically have many gas clouds forming new stars, often referred to as stellar nurseries, and now with ALMA, “a fantastic telescope at 16,500-ft elevation,” Sheth and his colleagues are studying them in more detail.

In particular, Sheth presented newly published results by Adam Leroy in the Astrophysical Journal, in which they examine star-forming clouds in the heart of the nearby starbursting galaxy, Sculptor, to study “the physics of how gas got converted into stars.” Sculptor and other starbursts form stars at a rate about 1,000 times faster than typical spiral galaxies like the Milky Way. “Only with ALMA can we actually accomplish observations like this” of objects outside our galaxy. By comparing the concentration and distribution of ten gas clouds in Sculptor, they find that the clouds are more massive, ten times denser, and more turbulent than similar clouds in more typical galaxies. Because of the density of these stellar nurseries, they can form stars much more efficiently.

Other astronomers at the AAAS meeting, such as Claudia Scarlata (University of Minnesota) and Eric Wilcots (University of Wisconsin), presented a larger-scale picture of how spiral galaxies collide with each other to form more massive elliptical-shaped galaxies. These galaxies typically appear older and have stopped forming stars, but they can grow by “merging” with a neighboring galaxy in its group. “I will contend that most galaxy transformations take place in groups,” says Wilcots. In a paper based on ALFALFA data published in the Astronomical Journal, Kelley Hess and Wilcots find gas-rich galaxies distributed primarily in the outskirts of groups, and therefore these systems tend to grow from the inside out.

In a related issue, both Priyamvada Natarajan (Yale University) and Scarlata discussed how the evolution of massive black holes at the centers of galaxies appear to be related to that of the galaxy as a whole, when astronomers follow them from “cradle to adulthood.” In particular, Natarajan explained how mature galaxies’ black holes can heat the gas in a galaxy and drive gas outflows, thus preventing continued star formation in the galaxy.

Finally, astronomers look forward to much more upcoming cutting-edge research on gas in galaxies. Ximena Fernández (Columbia University) described the COSMOS HI Large Extragalactic Survey (CHILES) of hydrogen gas in galaxies with the Very Large Array. They have completed a pilot survey so far, in which they have obtained the most distant detection so far of a galaxy containing gas. They plan to peer even further into the distant past than previous surveys, expecting to detect gas in 300 galaxies up to 5 billion light-years away—250 times further than the galaxy observed by Leroy.

Fernández also described MeerKAT, a radio telescope under construction in South Africa, and the Deep Investigation of Neutral Gas Origins (DINGO) in Australia, both of which will serve as precursors for the Square Kilometer Array in the 2020s. These new telescopes will add to astronomers’ increasingly complex view of the formation and evolution of galaxies.

It Turns Out Primordial Gravitational Waves Weren’t Found

Last March, international researchers from the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) telescope at the South Pole claimed that they detected primordial “B-mode” polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. If confirmed, this would have been an incredibly important discovery for astrophysics, as it would constitute evidence of gravitational waves due to cosmic inflation in the first moments of the universe. Nevertheless, as often happens in science, the situation turns out to be more complicated than it initially appeared.

In a joint analysis of data from BICEP2/Keck Array in the South Pole and the space-based Planck telescope, scientists from both collaborations now have a more complete picture and argue that the interpretation of the evidence is muddier than they had previously thought. Their paper will appear in the arXiv pre-print server in a few days and is submitted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters. [Update: the paper is now available on the arXiv.] The European Space Agency issued a press release about the paper on Friday after a summary of it was leaked and briefly posted on a French website.

Courtesy: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Courtesy: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

According to inflationary theory, the universe expanded for a brief period at an exponential rate 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang. As a result, models of inflation predict that this rapid acceleration would create ripples in space, generating gravitational waves that would remain energetic enough to leave an imprint on the last-scattered photons, the CMB radiation, approximately 380,000 years later. The CMB spectrum, the “afterglow of the hot Big Bang,” has rich structure in it and has been measured to a “ridiculous level of precision,” according to Professor Martin White (University of California, Berkeley), who gave a plenary talk on cosmology results from Planck at the recent American Astronomical Society meeting.

The twists in the polarization signal of the CMB, known as B-modes (shown below) and quantified by a nonzero tensor-to-scalar ratio r, would be evidence in favor of inflation but they are much more difficult to detect. Scientists are trying to decipher a signal on the level of parts per trillion of ambient temperature, mere fractions of a nano-degree! Since inflation would explain why the universe appears to have no overall curvature, why it approximately appears the same in all directions, and why it has structures of galaxies in it, BICEP2’s result last year—the first claimed detection of cosmic inflation—excited physicists around the world. But last summer, Planck scientists presented a map of polarized light from interstellar dust grains and argued that the polarization signal BICEP2 detected could be due to “foreground” dust in our own Milky Way galaxy rather than due to primordial gravitational waves in the distant universe. The hotly debated controversy remained unresolved and led to the new joint analysis by scientists from both teams.

Courtesy: BICEP2
Courtesy: BICEP2

BICEP2 is sensitive to low frequencies (150 GHz) while Planck is more sensitive to higher ones (353 GHz). As Professor Brian Keating (University of California, San Diego), a member of the BICEP2 collaboration, puts it, “it’s as if you’re listening to an opera, but BICEP2 could only hear the tenors and Planck could only hear the sopranos.” Unfortunately, the joint analysis produced only an upper limit to the value of r, meaning that the evidence for B-mode polarization due to inflation remains elusive for now. “It’s probably at best an admixture of Milky Way dust and gravitational waves,” says Keating. [Full disclosure: until last year, Ramin Skibba was a research scientist in the same department but in a different field as Keating at UC San Diego.]

This result must seem disappointing to BICEP2 scientists, but science often works this way, especially for such a difficult phenomenon to study. The signal is strong, but the interpretation is more complicated than it first appeared. On a positive note, the analysis shows that CMB researchers are faced with a foreground challenge rather than one due to the Earth’s atmosphere or to their detectors.

Illustration by Andy Freeberg, SLAC / South Pole Telescope photo by Keith Vanderlinde
Illustration by Andy Freeberg, SLAC / South Pole Telescope photo by Keith Vanderlinde

Although Planck will have additional polarization measurements and more assessments of systematic uncertainties in a later data release, they will not be able to settle this debate for now. But new experiments will come online soon, including a BICEP3, and they will produce more precise measurements that could effectively remove the contribution from dust. The signal is tractable, and scientists are looking forward to the day when they can declare with strong statistical significance that they have finally discovered evidence of inflation.

Like a BOSS: How Astronomers are Getting Precise Measurements of the Universe’s Expansion Rate

Astrophysicists studying the expansion of the Universe with the largest galaxy catalogs ever assembled are ushering in an exciting era of precision cosmology. Last week, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) issued its final public data release, and scientists working in its largest program, the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) also presented their final results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Washington.

By mapping over 10,000 square degrees — 25% of the sky — BOSS is “measuring our universe’s accelerated expansion with the world’s largest extragalactic redshift survey,” according to SDSS-III Director Daniel Eisenstein of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The BOSS results include new and precise measurements of the universe’s expansion rate (called the “Hubble constant”) and matter density, which includes dark matter, stars, gas, and dust.

BOSS conducted its observations at 2.5-meter Sloan Foundation Telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, producing spectra and spatial positions for 1.5 million galaxies and 300,000 quasars in a volume equivalent to a cube with length 8.5 billion light-years on a side (see image above). Astronomers used this rich dataset to map the objects’ distributions and to detect the characteristic scale imprinted by baryon acoustic oscillations in the early universe. Sound waves propagate outward with time, like ripples spreading in a pond, and are indicated by a large-scale clustering signal in the positions of galaxies relative to each other (see illustration below). By analyzing this signal at different times, it is possible to study the behavior of the mysterious “dark energy” causing the accelerating expansion of the universe.

An illustration of the concept of baryon acoustic oscillations, imprinted in the early universe and seen today in galaxy surveys. (courtesy:  Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield)
An illustration of the concept of baryon acoustic oscillations, imprinted in the early universe and seen today in galaxy surveys. (courtesy: Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield)

In BOSS’s final results, hundreds of scientists in the international collaboration measured this scale with unprecedented precision. In particular, Ashley Ross from Ohio State University presented results that demonstrated the power of combining an analysis of the transverse and line-of-sight distributions of galaxies. In a paper by Eric Aubourg and collaborators, BOSS astronomers measured the cosmic distance scale of galaxies in the “local” universe and of quasars in the distance universe with impressively small systematic errors—at less than the 1% level—when combined with cosmic microwave background constraints. Their cosmological analysis yields a measurement of the Hubble constant and of the matter density of the universe consistent with a “flat” cold dark matter cosmology with a cosmological constant (see below). Cosmological models including curvature, evolving dark energy, or massive neutrinos are not completely ruled out but are less supported by the data than before. Other results from the collaboration will be submitted for publication in the coming months.

Cosmological constraints on the Hubble parameter h, matter density Ωm, and curvature parameter Ωk from BOSS's baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO) combined with supernovae (SN) and Planck results. (Courtesy: Aubourg et al. 2014)
Cosmological constraints on the Hubble parameter h, matter density Ωm, and curvature parameter Ωk from BOSS’s baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO) combined with supernovae (SN) and Planck results. (Courtesy: Aubourg et al. 2014)

The BOSS dataset “represents the gold standard in mapping out the network of galaxies that comprises the large-scale structure of the Universe…The data enables us to trace, with greater precision than ever before, the presence of dark energy, the behaviour of gravity on cosmic scales, and the effect of massive neutrinos,” says Chris Blake of Swinburne University, not affiliated with the collaboration.

Where will the BOSS team go from here? The collaboration has begun work on SDSS-IV, whose six-year mission includes an ambitious extended BOSS (eBOSS) survey. According to eBOSS Targeting Coordinator Jeremy Tinker of New York University, eBOSS observations of over 700,000 quasars will precisely measure the distance scale “at a much higher redshift regime that is not covered by current large-scale surveys.”

You can read more about BOSS and updates about the three other componenets of the SDSS in our previous article here.
SDSS website

(Full disclosure: Ramin Skibba had been a member of the BOSS collaboration during 2010-2012.)