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Scientists: Next space telescope should exceed James Webb' s ability to study planets

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An illustration depicts the LUVOIR-A space telescope, or Large UV Optical Infrared telescope, which would be an $11 billion undertaking that could be a larger successor to the James Web Space Telescope. Image courtesy of NASA
An illustration depicts the LUVOIR-A space telescope, or Large UV Optical Infrared telescope, which would be an $11 billion undertaking that could be a larger successor to the James Web Space Telescope. Image courtesy of NASA

Nov. 4 (UPI) -- NASA should begin plan for a massive new space telescope -- one bigger than the largest telescope in history, the James Webb Space Telescope, according to a report from scientists around the country released Thursday.

"This large strategic mission is of an ambitious scale that only NASA can undertake and for which the U.S. is uniquely situated to lead," according to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which released the report.

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A 614-page document, Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s, lays out a 10-year plan for space and astronomy science: Astro2020.

The new telescope would eclipse the James Webb telescope, which is to be launched Dec. 18 from South America and is designed to exceed the Hubble Space Telescope in viewing distance.

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The James Webb telescope is over budget and approaching $10 billion in cost; the report released Thursday estimates the cost of a successor at $11 billion.

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The proposed bigger observatory, known internally at NASA as LUVOIR, would be capable of viewing exoplanets -- planets outside our solar system -- more clearly than the James Webb telescope.

The proposed telescope would achieve such vision partly by blocking out the light of distant stars with small shields in front of the telescope, so the exoplanet's image is clearer, said Gabriela Gonzalez, professor of physics and astronomy at the Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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Gonzalez is a member of the official steering committee for the survey, which guides strategy and direction for the undertaking once per decade.

"What's needed is a telescope that focuses on a specific planet and the atmosphere of the planet without being blinded by the stars," Gonzalez told UPI. "You're looking at planets orbiting around stars.

"Of course, the star is a million times brighter than the planet, so what's needed is a way to block the starlight and see just the planet."

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By studying the exoplanets in detail, scientists hope to characterize their atmospheres and identify potential signs of alien life.

The report identifies three astronomy priorities for the next 10 years:

  • Habitable worlds: "Identify and characterize Earth-like planets outside this solar system, with the ultimate goal of obtaining imaging of potentially habitable worlds."
  • Dynamic universe: "Probe the nature of black holes and neutron stars - and the explosive events that gave rise to them - and understand what happened in the earliest moments in the birth of the universe."
  • Galaxy growth: "Revolutionize understanding of the origins and evolution of galaxies, from the webs of gas that feed them to the formation of stars.
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The report recommends early investment in developing multiple mission concepts "to lower the risks and costs of projects before they become too complex, large and costly."

It notes the sudden collapse in December 2020 of the most powerful radio telescope on Earth, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Scientists said that the site could be a good location for future observatories -- including a potential medium-sized dish that would be part of a global network of new observatories known as ngVLA.

"The timing of this event ... precluded any detailed response in this report, although it is clear that the loss of Arecibo's capabilities will significantly impact the ability of the U.S. astronomy community to address high-priority science questions," the report said.

The scientists who authored the report were right to recognize that a replacement for Arecibo requires more discussion and planning, said Ramon Lugo, who directs management of the facility by University of Central Florida.

"I respect that they didn't really have a chance to go through a detailed review for this report," Lugo said. "But other facilities will not be able to match the size, sensitivity and power of the planetary radar that Arecibo provided."

The scientific community believes the U.S. public, Congress and the people of Puerto Rico should help decide what happens next at Arecibo, Gonzalez said.

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"Arecibo was included in many of the cutting-edge science investigations we were proposing," she said. "So that was a very sad note for the community. Personally, I was crying when I saw the damage there."

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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