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.

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

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.

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

JWST Pioneer Passes Along Advice for Future Space Telescope Builders

John Mather
Nobel-winning physicist John Mather is the senior project scientist for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. (NASA Photo / Chris Gunn)

After a quarter-century of development, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a smashing success. But senior project scientist John Mather, a Nobel-winning physicist who’s played a key role in the $10 billion project since the beginning, still sees some room for improvement.

Mather looked back at what went right during JWST’s creation, as well as what could be done better the next time around, during a lecture delivered today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

Continue reading “JWST Pioneer Passes Along Advice for Future Space Telescope Builders”

NASA Continues to Try and Rescue Failing Hubble

Will China's new space telescope out-perform the Hubble? Image:
The Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA

Things are not looking very good for the Hubble Space Telescope right now. On Sunday, June 13th, the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working, prompting the main computer to put the telescope into safe mode. While the telescope itself and its science instruments remain in working order, science operations have been suspended until the operations team can figure out how to get the payload computer back online.

While attempting to restart the computer, the operations team has also tried to trace the issue to specific components in the payload computer and switch to their backup modules. As of June 30th, the team began looking into the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter (CU/SDF) and the Power Control Unit (PCU). Meanwhile, NASA is busy preparing and testing procedures to switch to backup hardware if either of these components are the culprit.

Continue reading “NASA Continues to Try and Rescue Failing Hubble”

Oumuamua Isn’t an Alien Probe, Because Aliens can Learn Everything They Need About us With Telescopes

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

In the Fall of 2017, the first known interstellar object passed through the Solar System, triggering a revolution in astronomy. Because of the amonolous nature of the object, astronomers from all over the world were at a loss to explain what it was. Neither comet, nor asteroid, nor any other conventional object appeared to fit the bill, leading to all kinds of “exotic” explanations.

A particularly exotic explanation was offered by Harvard Professor Avi Loeb and his former postdoc (Dr. Shmuel Bialy), who hypothesized that ‘Oumuamua could have been an extraterrestrial lightsail. Whereas most rebuttal papers questioned the evidence presented, a new study by astrophysicist and UCLA emeritus professor Ben Zuckerman questioned something else: why would an extraterrestrial civilization want to send a probe our way?

Continue reading “Oumuamua Isn’t an Alien Probe, Because Aliens can Learn Everything They Need About us With Telescopes”

Nancy Roman Telescope’s Primary 2.4-Meter Mirror is Ready

Artist's impression of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, named after NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy. Credits: NASA

The Nancy Roman Telescope has reached another milestone in its development. NASA has announced that the space telescope’s primary mirror is now complete. The 2.4 meter (7.9 ft) mirror took less time to develop than other mirrors because it wasn’t built from scratch. It’s a re-shaped and re-surfaced mirror that came from the National Reconnaissance Office.

Continue reading “Nancy Roman Telescope’s Primary 2.4-Meter Mirror is Ready”

Tiny Cubesat Detects an Exoplanet

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the past decade and a half, a total of 4,164 thousand planets have been discovered beyond our Solar System, while another 5220 await confirmation. The majority of these were detected by the venerable Kepler Space Telescope, while the remainder have been observed by the Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and a combination of other satellites and ground-based telescopes.

But in what is a new record, a known super-Earth was recently observed by the Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics (ASTERIA) small satellite – making it the smallest observatory to spot an exoplanet. Led by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this mission has demonstrated that small satellites can perform complex tasks in space normally carried out by large observatories.

Continue reading “Tiny Cubesat Detects an Exoplanet”

Good-bye Spitzer. We’ll Miss You But We Won’t Forget You.

An image from each year of Spitzer's operation. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has reached the end of its life. Its mission was to study objects in the infrared, and it excelled at that since it was launched in 2003. But every mission has an end, and on January 30th 2020, Spitzer shut down.

Continue reading “Good-bye Spitzer. We’ll Miss You But We Won’t Forget You.”

It Looks Like James Webb’s Launch Date is Going to Slip to July 2021

During a recent test, engineers and technicians fully deployed all five layers of the James Webb Space Telescopes sun-shield. Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Put “James Webb Telescope launch” into your search engine and you’ll be flooded with links, some reaching back to the ‘scope’s first proposed launch date in 2010. The delayed launch of the space telescope is a running theme in the space community, even though we all know it’s going to be worth the wait. So nobody will be surprised by this latest development in the story of the world’s most anticipated telescope.

Continue reading “It Looks Like James Webb’s Launch Date is Going to Slip to July 2021”

Building Space Telescopes… In Space

Concept of an in-space assembled telescope. Credit: NASA
Concept of an in-space assembled telescope. Credit: NASA

When it comes to telescopes, bigger is better. That’s true down here on Earth, and it’s especially true out in space. As astronomers and engineers design the next generation of giant space telescopes, they’re running up against the limits of current launch providers. There are only so many ways you can fold a huge telescope to get it to fit inside a 5-meter launch fairing.

Continue reading “Building Space Telescopes… In Space”