Two enormous telescopes and a space telescope are on astronomers’ wish lists for the next decade as they seek life and habitable planets beyond Earth on Thursday, American astronomers urged the government to invest in a new generation of “very massive” multibillion-dollar telescopes that would be larger than those now on the ground or orbiting in space.
The investment would include bailing out two competing projects, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope, and uniting their efforts. With main collecting mirrors of 25 and 30 meters in diameter, these telescopes would be 100 times more sensitive than any telescope now in use.
10-Year Plan for the Cosmos telescope
Astronomers would be able to see deep into the centers of distant galaxies, where monster black holes roam and spit energy; probe mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy; and study planets orbiting stars other than the sun. Perhaps more importantly, they have the potential to pose fresh concerns regarding the universe’s nature.
Astronomers, on the other hand, have battled for years to acquire enough funds to realize their ambitions the National Science Foundation would spend $1.6 billion to complete both projects and then assist in their operation as part of a new initiative named the United States Extremely Large Telescope, according to the latest plan.
The scientists also encouraged NASA to launch a new Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program on Thursday, which would produce a succession of astrophysics spacecraft over the next 20 to 30 years.
The first would be an optical telescope larger than the Hubble Space Telescope, capable of discovering and analyzing Earthlike planets in the neighboring galaxy – possibly livable “exo-Earths.” Only NASA could do that, according to the astronomers, who estimate that it will cost $11 billion and be complete in 2040.
Those two proposals were among the most important in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s, a 614-page study issued on Thursday.
For the last 70 years, the academy has funded a survey of the astronomical community to define priorities for the following decade’s big-ticket issues. Congress, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy are all interested in the Decadal Survey.
The endeavor this year, headed by Fiona A. Harrison of the California Institute of Technology and Robert C.
Kennicutt, Jr. of the University of Arizona, took three years and included hundreds of meetings and debates among 13 subpanels representing every area of astronomy. In all, 860 White Papers were submitted to the survey, including descriptions of potential telescopes, space missions, experiments or observations, and concerns such as diversity that the astronomical community should address.
Dr. Harrison noted in an interview that their group sought to strike a balance between ambition and the amount of time and money these initiatives would need. Several concepts for planet-prospecting spacecraft, for example, have been proposed. Others were much too large, while others were far too little, and some would take a century to complete.
Rather than choosing one of them, the organization encouraged the community and NASA to submit proposals for a six-meter-diameter space telescope. (Hubble’s primary mirror has a diameter of 2.4 meters.)
Dr. Harrison said, “A six-meter telescope looks to be an attainable goal.”
“By nature, this is an ambitious quest,” she continued. “Only NASA, only the United States, can do this.” We’re certain that we’ll be able to pull it off.”
In an email, Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, which manages the National Science Foundation’s observatories, called the decadal report as “quite darn brave.” “They haven’t shied away from expressing a vision that spans decades, which is what it will take, and what it needs to take.”
The decadal surveys have a proven track record for both the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and is still operational, and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch next month and is meant to look back to the beginning of time, profited from high rankings in earlier decadal surveys.
As a consequence, the astronomy and astrophysics communities anxiously await the findings of each new study. In an email on the day of the report’s publication, Natalie Batalha, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who played a key role in NASA’s Kepler planet-finding mission, stated, “The committee has been exceedingly secretive.” “To be honest, I haven’t heard anything.” I’m waiting on pins and needles.”
The academy outlined three major scientific aims for the next decade in its report released on Thursday: the hunt for habitable planets and life; the study of black holes and neutron stars, which are responsible for nature’s most catastrophic catastrophes; and galaxies’ expansion and evolution.
According to the paper, “the following decades will place mankind on a course to discover if we are alone.” “Life on Earth may be the outcome of a common process, or it could necessitate such a unique mix of conditions that we are the only living creatures in our galaxy, if not the whole universe. “Both answers are profound.”
The concept for an Extremely Large Telescope is ambitious, as it combines two competing telescope projects: the Thirty Meter Telescope, which is planned for the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, or the Canary Islands in Spain, and the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is currently under construction in Chile.
Both telescopes are the culmination of extensive multinational partnerships and two decades of fundraising and partner recruitment. Both telescopes would be nearly three times the size of anything currently on Earth and 100 times more capable of detecting dim distant stars in the sky; when used together, they might answer some of the most profound questions about the universe.
However, neither project has been able to acquire the requisite funds — more than $2 billion is required — to meet its objectives.
Failure to construct these telescopes would hand over ground-based astronomy leadership to Europe, which is currently developing a 39-meter telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert called the European Extremely Large Telescope, which is set to begin operations in 2027. Some astronomers have likened the situation to the termination of the American Superconducting Super Collider project in 1993, which gave CERN and the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva the future of particle physics.
The National Science Foundation would gain substantial observation time on the two telescopes if it invested in their completion, which it would distribute to American astronomers.
“Being in opposite hemispheres and with fundamentally different designs, the two telescopes would be well adapted for complementing cosmic interrogations,” Dr. Harrison stated. “It’s unfathomable that the United States would not have access to it.”
There will be significant obstacles to overcome the Giant Magellan team has already commenced ground in Chile, but objections and blockades by native Hawaiians and other organizations have halted construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope. On the Canary Islands La Palma, an alternative location has been identified.
Given the present focus on infrastructure and growing scientific expenditures, astronomers expect that the stars will align for their bold ambition. However, they have a track of of cost overruns, most notably with the James Webb Space Telescope, which is set to launch in December after years of delays and a total cost of $10 billion.
Michael Turner, a cosmologist currently at the Kavli Foundation in Los Angeles and a veteran of decadal surveys, said: “JWST looms over all of this – the whole program will be reliant on its success.” “I’m crossing my fingers.”