Future Space Telescopes Could be 100 Meters Across, Constructed in Space, and Then Bent Into a Precise Shape

Graphic depiction of Bend-Forming of Large Electrostatically Actuated Space Structures. Credit: Zachary Cordero

It is an exciting time for astronomers and cosmologists. Since the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have been treated to the most vivid and detailed images of the Universe ever taken. Webb‘s powerful infrared imagers, spectrometers, and coronographs will allow for even more in the near future, including everything from surveys of the early Universe to direct imaging studies of exoplanets. Moreover, several next-generation telescopes will become operational in the coming years with 30-meter (~98.5 feet) primary mirrors, adaptive optics, spectrometers, and coronographs.

Even with these impressive instruments, astronomers and cosmologists look forward to an era when even more sophisticated and powerful telescopes are available. For example, Zachary Cordero 
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently proposed a telescope with a 100-meter (328-foot) primary mirror that would be autonomously constructed in space and bent into shape by electrostatic actuators. His proposal was one of several concepts selected this year by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program for Phase I development.

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It’s Already Hard Enough to Block a Single Star’s Light to See its Planets. But Binary Stars? Yikes

Binary stars are common and imaging their planets will be a challenge. How can astronomers block all that light so they can see the planets? This artist's illustration shows the eclipsing binary star Kepler 16, as seen from the surface of an exoplanet in the system. Image Credit: NASA

Detecting exoplanets was frontier science not long ago. But now we’ve found over 5,000 of them, and we expect to find them around almost every star. The next step is to characterize these planets more fully in hopes of finding ones that might support life. Directly imaging them will be part of that effort.

But to do that, astronomers need to block out the light from the planets’ stars. That’s challenging in binary star systems.

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Subaru Telescope can now Analyze 2,400 Galaxies Simultaneously

First light is an exciting time for astronomers and engineers who help bring new telescopes up to speed. One of the most recent and significant first light milestones recently occurred at the Subaru Telescope in Hawai’i. Though it has been in operation since 2005, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) main telescope recently received an upgrade that will allow it to simultaneously observe 2400 astronomical objects at once over a patch of sky the size of several moons.

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A New Instrument Gives the Very Large Telescope an Even Sharper View of the Cosmos

ERIS, the Very Large Telescope’s newest infrared eye on the sky, reveals the inner ring of the galaxy NGC 1097 in stunning detail, in this comparison view. Credit: ESO/ERIS team.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal in northern Chile, is undoubtedly one of the premier ground-based observatories. But a new infrared instrument recently installed on the telescope has made the VLT even better.

The Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph (ERIS) was delivered to Chile in December, 2021 and the first test observations were carried out beginning in February of this year. ESO, the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, an international organization which coordinates the use of VLT and several other observatories, says this infrared instrument “will be able to see further and in finer detail, leading the way in Solar System, exoplanet and galaxy observations.”

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Three New Potentially Hazardous Asteroids Discovered, Including a big one That Measures 1.5 km Across

Sstronomers have spotted three near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) hiding in the glare of the Sun. These NEAs are part of an elusive population that lurks inside the orbits of Earth and Venus. One of the asteroids is the largest object that is potentially hazardous to Earth to be discovered in the last eight years. Image Credit: DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva/Spaceengine

An asteroid 1.5 km across is no joke. Even a much smaller one, about the size of a house, can explode with more power than the first nuclear weapons. When an asteroid is greater than 1 km in diameter, astronomers call them “planet-killers.” The impact energy released from a planet-killer striking Earth would be devastating, so knowing where these asteroids are and where they’re headed is critically important.

Our defensive capability against asteroid strikes is in its infancy, so advance notice of asteroids that could cross Earth’s orbit is critical. We’ll need time to prepare.

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A Planet has Been Found That Shifts In and Out of the Habitable Zone

Schematic diagram of the newly discovered Ross 508 planetary system. The green region represents the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on the planetary surface. The planetary orbit is shown as a blue line. Credit: Astrobiology Center.

A super-Earth planet has been found orbiting a red dwarf star, only 37 light-years from the Earth. Named Ross 508 b, the newly found world has an unusual elliptical orbit that causes it to shift in and out of the habitable zone. Therefore, part of the time conditions would be conducive for liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface, but other times it wouldn’t.

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The World's Largest Liquid-Mirror Telescope Comes Online

Ask any astronomer, astrophysicist, or cosmologist, and they’ll probably tell you that a new age of astronomy is upon us! Between breakthroughs in gravitational-wave astronomy, the explosion in exoplanet studies, and the next-generation ground-based and space-based telescopes coming online, it’s pretty evident that we are on the verge of an era of near-continuous discovery! As always, major discoveries, innovations, and the things they enable inspire scientists and researchers to look ahead and take the next big step.

Take, for example, the research into liquid mirrors and advanced interferometers, which would rely on entirely new types of telescopes and light-gathering to advance the science of astronomy. A pioneering example is the newly-commissioned International Liquid Mirror Telescope (ILMT) telescope that just came online at Devasthal Peak, a 2,450 m (8,040 ft) tall mountain located in the central Himalayan range. Unlike conventional telescopes, the ILMT relies on a rapidly-rotating 4-meter (13 ft) mirror coated with a layer of mercury to capture cosmic light.

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China Announces Its New Flagship Space Telescope Mission

Artist's concept of Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST).  Credit: Jaimito130805, CC BY-SA 4.0
Artist’s concept of the Chinese Space Station Telescope (CSST). Credit: Jaimito130805, CC BY-SA 4.0

Distant galaxies, dark matter, dark energy, and the origin and evolution of the universe itself are some of the many scientific goals of China’s newly announced space telescope. If all goes according to plan, the China Space Station Telescope (CSST) will blast off atop a Long March 5B rocket sometime in late 2023. Once in a safe orbit, CSST should begin observations in 2024. Judging by these research topics, it looks like the Chinese Academy of Sciences is throwing down an impressive scientific gauntlet for itself and its astronomers.

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Webb Has Almost Reached its Final, Coldest Temperature

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA's James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist's conception, will provide more information about previously detected exoplanets. Beyond 2020, many more next-generation space telescopes are expected to build on what it discovers. Credit: NASA

 

Launched on December 25, 2021 from ESA’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reached its final orbit at the L2 Lagrange point on January 24, 2022. It has since performed several operations to get it ready for its observing mission which should begin in about a month.

As part of getting it ready for its mission, NASA has been cooling off its instruments, such as the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), to operating temperatures. Now that they have reached that point, all that’s left to cool down are the mirrors.

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Space for All: Bringing Astronomy to Remote Mountain Villages in Morocco

Credit: AABACA/SSVI/IAU/Asif Astronomy Club, Al-Medhi E.

The night sky is a great lever, something that people from all walks of life have been able to look upon and draw inspiration. Unfortunately, the ability to observe the planets and stars and study the mysteries of the Universe is something that is still not open to everyone. When it comes to astronomy, there is still a problem of access, which mirrors disparities in development, education, and health outcomes worldwide.

This disparity is not only persistent when it comes to developed and developing nations, but between urban and rural communities as well. In southern Morocco, this disparity is felt by public schools in the remote villages of the Atlas Mountains. But thanks to the Asif Astronomy Club and its founder – Ph.D. student El-Mehdi Essaidi – children in these schools are getting the chance to use a professional astronomical telescope to observe the stars and planets for the first time.

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