Planning is Underway for NASA’s Next Big Flagship Space Telescope

Artist rendition of a starshade being used on a future space telescope. This example shows the proposed Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx), which the 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey decided to combine elements of this with the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) for a new flagship telescope, which is now known as the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO). (Credit: NASA)

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has only been operational for just over a year, but this isn’t stopping the world’s biggest space agency from discussing the next big space telescope that could serve as JWST’s successor sometime in the future. Enter the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), which was first proposed as NASA’s next flagship Astrophysics mission during the National Academy of Sciences’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020 (Astro2020). While its potential technological capabilities include studying exoplanets, stars, galaxies, and a myriad of other celestial objects for life beyond Earth, there’s a long way to go before HWO will be wowing both scientists and the public with breathtaking images and new datasets.

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The Hubble Imaged Some Globular Clusters in an Unusual Place: Near the Milky Way’s Centre

Most globular clusters are found in the Milky Way's halo. But some, like the glittering globular cluster Terzan 12, are near the galactic centre. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Cohen (Rutgers University)

Our galaxy has about 200 Globular Clusters (GCs,) and most of them are in the galaxy’s halo. Astronomers think most GCs were taken from dwarf galaxies and merged with the Milky Way due to the galaxy’s powerful gravity. That explains why so many of them are on the outskirts of the galaxy. But they’re not all in the halo. Some are towards the Milky Way’s galactic bulge. What are globular clusters doing there?

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Exploring Io’s Volcanic Activity via Hubble and Webb Telescopes

Concept image of the various features within Jupiter’s surrounding environment that this new science campaign will examine, including its massive magnetic field, along with Io’s neutral clouds and plasma torus. (Credit: Southwest Research Institute/John Spencer)

The two most powerful space telescopes ever built, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Hubble Space Telescope, are about to gather data about the most volcanically body in the entire solar system, Jupiter’s first Galilean Moon, Io. This data will be used in combination with upcoming flybys of Io by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is currently surveying the Jupiter system and is slated to conduct these flybys later this year and early 2024. The purpose of examining this small, volcanic moon with these two powerful telescopes and one orbiting spacecraft is for scientists to gain a better understanding of how Io’s escaping atmosphere interacts with Jupiter’s surrounding magnetic and plasma environment.

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JWST Plucks One Single Star out of a Galaxy Seen 12.5 Billion Years Ago

The massive gravity of galaxy cluster MACS0647 acts as a cosmic lens to bend and magnify light from the more distant MACS0647-JD system. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

After years of build-up and anticipation, the James Webb Space Telescope finally launched into orbit on December 25th, 2021 (what a Christmas present, huh?). Since then, the stunning images and data it has returned have proven beyond a doubt that it was the best Christmas present ever! After its first year of operations, the JWST has lived up to one of its primary objectives: to observe the first stars and galaxies that populated the Universe. The next-generation observatory has accomplished that by setting new distance records and revealing galaxies that existed less than 1 billion years after the Big Bang!

These studies are essential to charting the evolution of the cosmos and resolving issues with our cosmological models, like the Hubble Tension and the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Well, hang onto your hats because things have reached a new level of awesome! In a recent study, an international team of scientists isolated a well-magnified star candidate in a galaxy that appears as it was almost 12.5 billion years ago. The detection of a star that existed when the Universe was only ~1.2 billion years old showcases the abilities of the JWST and offers a preview of what’s to come!

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Neptune's Cloud Cover is Linked to the Solar Cycle

This sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images chronicles the waxing and waning of the amount of cloud cover on Neptune. Credits: NASA, ESA, Erandi Chavez (UC Berkeley), Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley)

Whenever Neptune reaches its closest point in the sky to Earth, its portrait is taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and other ground-based observatories. Watching the planet from 1994 to 2020, astronomers have made puzzling discovery.

The clouds in Neptune’s atmosphere appear to be to be linked to the solar cycle and not the planet’s cycle of seasons. The global cloud cover seems to come and go in a cycle that apparently syncs up with the Sun’s 11-year cycle, as it shifts from solar maximum to solar minimum or vice versa. This is surprising since Neptune is so far from the Sun and receives about 0.1% of Earth’s sunlight.

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DART Impact Ejected 37 Giant Boulders from Asteroid Dimorphos’ Surface

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the asteroid Dimorphos was taken on 19 December 2022, nearly four months after the asteroid was impacted by NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission. Hubble’s sensitivity reveals a few dozen boulders knocked off the asteroid by the force of the collision. These are among the faintest objects Hubble has ever photographed inside the Solar System. Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA).

When the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) spacecraft intentionally slammed into asteroid moonlet Dimorphos on September 26, 2022, telescopes around the world and those in space watched as it happened, and continued to monitor the aftermath.

Of course, the Hubble Space Telescope was focused on the event. In looking at Hubble’s images and data from post-impact, astronomers discovered 37 boulders that were ejected due to the impact. These boulders range in size from 1 meter (3 feet) to 6.7 meters (22 feet).

However, these boulders were not debris created by the spacecraft’s impact. Instead, they were boulders that were already on the surface of Dimorphos, and the impact event “shook” the boulders loose. A team of astronomers, led by David Jewitt and Yoonyoung Kim say in their paper detailing the findings that these boulders are some of the faintest objects ever imaged in the Solar System, only visible because of Hubble’s keen sensitivity. The images here showing the boulders surrounding Dimorphos were taken on December 19, 2022.

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A Black Hole Switched On in the Blink of an Eye

This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. This thin disc of rotating material consists of the leftovers of a Sun-like star which was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. Shocks in the colliding debris as well as heat generated in accretion led to a burst of light, resembling a supernova explosion. Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

In 2019, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Samantha Oates of the University of Birmingham discovered one of the most powerful transients ever seen – where astronomical objects change their brightness over a short period. Oates and her colleagues found this object, known as J221951-484240 (or J221951), using the Ultra-Violet and Optical Telescope (UVOT) on NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory while searching for the source of a gravitational wave (GW) that was thought to be caused by two massive objects merging in our galaxy.

Multiple follow-up observations were made using the UVOT and Swift’s other instruments – the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) and X-Ray Telescope (XRT), the Hubble Space Telescope, the South African Large Telescope (SALT), the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), and more. The combined observations and spectra revealed that the source was a supermassive black hole (SMBH) in a distant galaxy that mysteriously “switched on,” becoming one of the most dramatic bursts of brightness ever seen with a black hole.

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Astronomers See the Same Supernova Four Times Thanks to a Gravitational Lens

A gravitational lens caused by a galaxy in the foreground leading to an "Einstein Cross." Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
A gravitational lens caused by a galaxy in the foreground leading to an "Einstein Cross." Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Measuring cosmic distances is challenging, and astronomers rely on multiple methods and tools to do it – collectively referred to as the Cosmic Distance Ladder. One particularly crucial tool is Type Ia supernovae, which occur in binary systems where one star (a white dwarf) consumes matter from a companion (often a red giant) until it reaches the Chandrasekhar Limit and collapses under its own mass. As these stars blow off their outer layers in a massive explosion, they temporarily outshine everything in the background.

In a recent study, an international team of researchers led by Ariel Goobar of the Oskar Klein Centre at Stockholm University discovered an unusual Type Ia supernova, SN Zwicky (SN 2022qmx). In an unusual twist, the team observed an “Einstein Cross,” an unusual phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity where the presence of a gravitational lens in the foreground amplifies light from a distant object. This was a major accomplishment for the team since it involved observing two very rare astronomical events that happened to coincide.

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Chandra and JWST Join Forces in a Stunning Series of Images

Credit: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO, XMM: ESA/XMM-Newton; IR: JWST: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI, Spitzer: NASA/JPL/CalTech; Optical: Hubble: NASA/ESA/STScI, ESO; Image Processing: L. Frattare, J. Major, N. Wolk, and K. Arcand

New images that combine data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) JWST have just been released! The images feature four iconic astronomical objects, showcasing the capabilities of these observatories by combining light in the visible, infrared, and X-ray wavelengths. These include the NGC 346 star cluster located in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), the NGC 1672 spiral galaxy, the Eagle Nebula (Messier 16, or M16), and the spiral galaxy Messier 74 (aka. the Phantom Galaxy).

These objects were made famous by the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, which took pictures of them between 1995 and 2005. Since it commenced operations, the JWST has conducted follow-up observations that provided a sharper view of these objects that captured additional features. Hubble and the JWST even teamed up to provide a multi-wavelength view of the Phantom Galaxy last year. By adding Chandra’s famed X-ray imaging capabilities to Webb’s sensitivity and infrared light, these latest images provide a new glimpse of these objects, revealing both faint and more energetic and powerful features.

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Where Are the Missing Black Holes? The Hubble May Have Helped Find One

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the globular cluster Messier 4. It contains several hundre thousand stars, and its center might host an elusive intermediate-mass black hole. The black hole could have 800 solar masses. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Most black holes are stellar mass black holes. They’re created when a star several times more massive than our Sun reaches the end and collapses in on itself. There are also supermassive black holes (SMBH,) the behemoths at the center of galaxies that can boast billions of times more mass than the Sun.

But where are the intermediate-mass black holes?

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