What does it take over 20,000 engineers and hundreds of scientists to build? A space telescope, specifically the James Webb Space Telescope.
Fortunately, the effort was worth it, with a plethora of incredible results from NASA’s newest observatory in its first six months of science operations. But what comes next? John Mather, Nobel Prize-winning astronomer and leader behind the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST), shared his visions of what all of these engineers and scientists might be tackling next Thursday (January 12), the final day of the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society held in Seattle and virtually.
Mather’s involvement in astronomy goes back even before the The Hubble Space Telescopein 1990, when the first ideas for the Next Generation Space Telescope (which would later become JWST) were floated in the 1980s. To realize a dream like JWST, it took decades of innovation from countless scientists and engineers, including inventing “new flavors of detectors” for the telescope to make the observations they hoped for.
Related: The best ever images from the James Webb Space Telescope (gallery)
And the next big astronomical goals will require similar dedication and creativity, Mather said. JWST “is a demonstration that we can do hard things,” he said in his convention speech. “And we’re going to keep doing hard things.”
Some goals are closer than others, and there are so many swirling around in astronomers’ minds. “I can’t tell you all the wonderful things that are coming, so I’ll tell you the ones that interest me the most,” Mather said.
A number of exciting new observatories will come online in the months and years to come, including the European Mission Euclid and NASA Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope who will seek clues in both the longstanding mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. The Vera Rubin Observatory, a giant project currently under construction in the high deserts of Chile, will survey the entire sky in search of small changes, called transients. Astronomers believe the observatory will spot millions of points of interest each night – so many that it will be difficult to sift through them all. “Maybe this ChatGPT thing will help,” Mather joked.
Looking a bit further down the road, the next hugely ambitious project is the so-called “Habitable Worlds Observatory– the mega-successor to Hubble and JWST, recommended by an important committee known as Astro2020 Ten-Year Survey.
Mather said he thinks this project is within reach and may even be easier to pull off than JWST, which has notoriously struggled to meet budgets and deadlines. Because rocket technology is continually improving — and getting cheaper — he suggested it might even be possible to assemble the Habitable Worlds Observatory and other next-generation telescopes in space rather than on ground.
And that’s not all about space telescopes. Mather said he was eager to see how giant telescopes about 98 feet (30 meters) in diameter would revolutionize astronomy here in the field, too.
And he’s dreaming even bigger than official NASA plans: maybe one day these ground-based behemoths will even work in tandem with space observatories in what Mather calls “hybrid space-ground” configurations. For example, a key technique of ground-based astronomers relies on small contraptions called coronagraphs which block out stars and reveal nearby faint planets. Maybe one day, Mather postulated, we could fly a giant lampshade into orbit and match it with the telescope on the ground.
Where such ambitions might take us isn’t clear, but to this day, each time our technology has improved, we’ve learned leaps and bounds about the universe – often finding something completely unknown. Mather ended his speech by rhetorically asking what we will see with all this new technology. “I don’t know,” he said, “but a lot more detail and a lot further than you can now.”