Space Exploration Takes Time

It took five decades to develop and ultimately launch the Hubble Space Telescope 

Artists conception of possible successor to the Hubble Space Telescope
Artists conception of possible successor to the Hubble Space Telescope Image Credit NASA

Future space telescopes (Oct. 15, 2014) –

Traveling and exploring space is an adventure unlike anything experienced by travelers during thousands of years of life on Earth. A space journey requires careful planning, patience, and determination far beyond any adventure ever undertaken by people traveling over land or water. Exploring space for possible new worlds orbiting distant stars takes a space telescope requiring decades to develop and ultimately launch into space.

For example, the space telescope most people associate with hunting for new worlds, the Hubble Space Telescope, took five decades to design, engineer and finally launch into space. In the same fashion, the James Webb Space Telescope is expected to make the leap into space in 2018, almost 24 years after work first started on the idea. In fact, NASA engineers and scientists believe it will take so long to actually build a true successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, they have already started work on a replacement.

Dubbed the Advanced Telescope Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST), the successor to the first planet hunter incorporates improved technology first pioneered by the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes. Studying the ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared universe, ATLAST is designed to be a long-term space observatory for the next phase of the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Engineers and scientists are currently taking a look at the costs and scientific and technical requirements of constructing a replacement planet hunter sometime within the next twenty or thirty years.

Team of NASA scientists and engineers studying the feasibility and costs of building ATLAST
Team of NASA scientists and engineers studying the feasibility and costs of building ATLAST Images Credit NASA

“Conceptually, ATLAST would leverage the technological advances pioneered by the Webb telescope, such as deployable, large segmented mirror arrays,” said Mark Clampin, ATLAST study scientist and Webb’s project scientist.

“We will be leveraging a lot of heritage from the Webb telescope and then developing new technologies over the next few years for the primary mirror assembly, wavefront sensing and control, and ultra-stable structures to achieve this wavefront error stability,” Clampin said.

“One of the killer apps currently planned for ATLAST is the ability to detect signatures of life in the atmospheres of Earth-like planets in the solar neighborhood,” Clampin said.“While other observatories will image larger exoplanets, they would not have ATLAST’s advanced ability to identify chemicals that may indicate the presence of life in these far-flung, Earth-size worlds.”

ATLAST will reside in the same Sun-Earth L2 orbit the James Webb Space Telescope will occupy once it’s launched around 2018. Carrying a state-of-the-art star shade designed to help reduce the light from an Earth-sized planet’s home star, ATLAST should detect worlds that could be a new cradle for the human race to begin life again.

ATLAST also has a large main mirror capable of studying star and galaxy birth in high definition. It would be able to provide detailed images of stars in galaxies over 10 million light-years away and regions of space where new stars are being created over 100 parsecs in size anywhere in the visible universe. This mirror would be quite a bit larger than the largest segmented mirror NASA has ever launched into space, the one on the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA identified a need to begin development of a replacement for Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope in a recent document outlining its vision for astrophysics during the next three decades titled “Enduring Quests, Daring Visions“.

“While people expect Hubble and Webb to operate for many years, we are looking ahead to the telescope and instrument requirements needed to answer the questions posed in NASA’s 30-year vision,” said Harley Thronson, the Goddard senior scientist for Advanced Concepts in Astrophysics and ATLAST study scientist.

“ATLAST would achieve critically important science goals not possible with ground-based observatories or with any other planned space missions,” added Thronson. “Now is the time to plan for the future.”

“One of the pertinent attributes about ATLAST is that it’s being designed to be modular and serviceable, following the Hubble Space Telescope model,” observed Julie Crooke, one of the Goddard study leads. “Mission planners would design the observatory so that it could be serviced to upgrade instrumentation — a potential capability that depends on available budget and science requirements. Serviceability has been one of the great paradigms in mission architecture that separates the Hubble Space Telescope from all of the other space missions to date,” Crooke said.

You can find more information on ATLAST here.

For more information on the James Webb Space Telescope visit here.

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