After JWST, what’s the next big thing for astronomers?
What would it take to build more than 20,000 engineers and hundreds of scientists? Space Telescope – Specifically, the James Webb Space Telescope.
Fortunately, the effort has been worthwhile, with a slew of amazing results from NASA’s newest observatory in the first six months of science operations. But what then? John Mather, Nobel Prize-winning astronomer and leading force behind James Webb Space Telescope (Webb, or JWST), shared his insights into what all those engineers and scientists might face next on Thursday (January 12), the last day of the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Seattle and virtually.
Mather’s involvement in astronomy predates even Hubble Space TelescopeIt was launched in 1990, when the first ideas for the Next Generation Space Telescope (which later became JWST) were first floated in the 1980s. Fulfilling a dream like JWST would require decades of innovation by countless scientists and engineers, including inventing “new flavors of detectors” for the telescope to make the observations they hoped.
Related: The best James Webb Space Telescope images of all time (gallery)
Mather said the next big astronomical goals will require similar dedication and creativity. In his conference speech, he said that JWST “is proof that we can do tough things.” “And we will continue to do difficult things.”
Some targets are closer than others, and there’s a lot more on astronomers’ minds. “I can’t tell you all the great things to come,” Mather said, “so I’ll tell you the ones that interest me the most.”
There are a number of exciting new observatories coming online in the coming months and years, including the European mission Euclid And NASA Nancy Grace Romanian Space Telescope They will look for clues in the ancient mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. the Vera Rubin Observatory, a giant project currently under construction in Chile’s high deserts, will scan the entire sky for tiny changes, known as transients. Astronomers believe that the observatory will discover millions of points of interest each night — many of which it will be a challenge to examine them all. “Maybe this thing will help with ChatGPT,” Mather joked.
Looking further afield, the next ambitious project is the so-called “Habitable Worlds Observatory— the mega-successor to both Hubble and JWST, recommended by an important panel known as Astro2020 Nodal Survey.
Mather said he believes this project is within reach, and could be easier to complete than JWST, which has struggled to meet budgets and deadlines. Since rocket technology is constantly improving — and becoming cheaper — it has been suggested that it may even be possible to assemble the Habitable Worlds Observatory and other next-generation telescopes in space rather than on Earth.
And it’s not all about space telescopes. Mather said he’s looking forward to seeing how gigantic telescopes nearly 98 feet (30 meters) in diameter revolutionize astronomy here on Earth, too.
And he dreams even bigger than NASA’s official plans: Perhaps one day these giant terrestrial planets will work alongside space observatories in what Mather calls “hybrid space-Earth” installations. For example, one of the main techniques of terrestrial astronomers relies on a few contraptions called Coronagraphs that obscures the stars and reveals faint nearby planets. Mather hypothesized that perhaps one day, we could fly in the shadow of a giant star in orbit and match it with a telescope on Earth.
It’s not clear where these ambitions might lead us, but even now, each time our technology improves, it teaches us great leaps about the universe – often we find something completely unknown. Mather ended his talk by asking rhetorically what we’re going to see with all this new technology. “I don’t know,” he said, “but there are a lot more details and a lot further than you can get right now.”
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