Astronomers want to build an epic $11B space telescope to replace Hubble

It’s the most exciting time of year for astronomers. Not because of the holidays or the launch of a new telescope, but because this week saw the release of the decadal survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. This report, released every 10 years, lays out plans for the next decade of astronomy in the U.S. — what to study, and what to build.

The Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020, known as Astro2020, prioritizes three main themes for the next decade of research: The search for potentially habitable exoplanets, understanding the mysteries of the universe including dark matter and the way the universe is expanding and learning about how galaxies form. It also recognizes the importance of expanding diversity and access in astronomy and supporting researchers who are early in their careers.

One of the biggest recommendations is for a new “Great Observatory” to replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope, which has had a series of problems this year due to its elderly hardware. The report recommends a huge new telescope successor which could operate in the optical, infrared, and ultraviolet wavelengths and which could be used for tasks like observing distant exoplanets to see if they could be potentially habitable.

The recommended giant telescope would be a mash-up of two proposals: NASA’s Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx) mission and its Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) mission. At a cost of $11 billion, it would be able to see distant, dim planets which are 10 billion times fainter than the stars around which they orbit.

Looking even further into the future, the report recommends that NASA sets up a “Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program” to develop even more telescopes, named after NASA’s four flagship observatories of the 1990s and early 2000s.

“This report sets an ambitious, inspirational, and aspirational vision for the coming decade of astronomy and astrophysics,” said Fiona Harrison, chair of the division of physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, in a statement. “In changing how we plan for the most ambitious strategic space projects, we can develop a broad portfolio of missions to pursue visionary goals, such as searching for life on planets orbiting stars in our galactic neighborhood — and at the same time exploit the richness of 21st-century astrophysics through a panchromatic fleet.”

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