Subscribe

What future ‘eyes’ in space will see

High definition could be going into deep space in the not-too-distant future.

  • close
    Astronomer Marc Postman poses with a model of the James Webb Space Telescope at The Space Telescope Science Institute, on March 18, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption
of

Hubble may still be in its prime, but that hasn’t prevented astronomers from contemplating an enormous successor: an observatory dubbed the High Definition Space Telescope (HDST).

With a mirror from 8 to 16 meters across (Hubble’s is 2.4 meters across and the James Webb Space Telescope’s is 6.5 meters), the telescope would be as much as 2,000 times as sensitive to faint objects as Hubble. And it would provide remarkably detailed data, says Marc Postman, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and a member of a group assessing the technology needs for such an observatory.

The telescope would allow astronomers to pick out individual sunlike stars in galaxies as far as 30 million light-years away, he says. On grander scales, the telescope would be able to identify features as far away as 326 light-years anywhere across the universe.

Astronomers have been exploring concepts for telescopes like this since the late 1980s. But Hubble has about a decade of operation left at best, and lead times on such projects are long. Technological advances and compelling scientific questions raised during the Hubble era are driving the interest.
The study group, convened by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and chaired by University of Washington astronomer Julianne Dalcanton and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sara Seager, is expected to release its findings in June.

A 10-meter-class space telescope covering light from near-infrared through ultraviolet, as Hubble does, would revolutionize efforts to identify the potentially habitable – or potentially already inhabited – rocky planets of sunlike stars, Dr. Postman notes.

Parked in an orbit nearly a million miles from Earth, HDST would be able to spot such planets out to distances of about 146 light-years.

In just a week’s worth of observation, HDST could gather enough spectral information from a planet’s atmosphere to detect molecular oxygen, methane, and water vapor; gauge the atmosphere’s thickness; spot a protective ozone layer; or even pick out indirect signs of vegetation.

The James Webb Space Telescope will conduct similar observations, but likely for just a handful of larger planets orbiting dimmer, cooler stars; the HDST in principle could observe as many as 50 systems.

The HDST also would be a boon to cosmologists. It would allow more-detailed observations of processes affecting the evolution of galaxies and their populations of stars and provide fresh insights on dark matter and dark energy.

The panel foresees HDST working in tandem with a new generation of large ground-based telescopes and other space-based observatories, as Hubble does. It would also require major contributions – perhaps telescope hardware – from international partners.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome
 
 
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.
 

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK