NASA is preparing the next steps in the development of the future large space telescope

NASA is preparing the next steps in the development of the future large space telescope

NASA is preparing the next steps in the development of the future large space telescope

SEATTLE — NASA is preparing to take the next step in planning a future large space telescope that could take two decades to launch, building on lessons learned from past missions.

During sessions at the recent 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA officials described their approach to developing what the agency is now calling the Observatory of Habitable Worlds, a 6.5-meter space telescope operating at ultraviolet, visible and near infrared wavelengths which was the top recommendation for a future major space mission in the Astro2020 decadal survey published in November 2021.

Specifically, the decade called for NASA to establish a technology development program to support both the Habitable Worlds Observatory as well as two future large space telescopes operating in far infrared and X-rays, often referred to collectively as the new great observatories. NASA responded by creating the Great Observatory Technology Maturation Program, or GOMAP, last year.

In a NASA open session at the Jan. 9 conference, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said the first of three stages of GOMAP is now nearing completion. This first step was largely an organizational step, establishing plans and policies for the entire program.

The second phase of GOMAP will soon begin with the establishment of a Science, Technology and Architecture Review Team (START) that will mature the concept of the Observatory of Habitable Worlds. “The first thing they’re really going to look at is what the science trades are for this mission,” he said, which includes both searches for potentially habitable exoplanets as well as other general astrophysics. .

A “dear colleague” letter seeking nominations to serve on START will be sent out in a few weeks, said Julie Crooke, GOMAP program manager at NASA Headquarters, in a separate conference session the same day. The team will consider various options for the mission design and make recommendations to NASA on how to proceed, she said. “We really want to look at the whole space of options.”

Crooke said she wanted to attract a wide range of people from the scientific and technical communities to START, with around 20 to 30 people on the committee. They will be supplemented by independent consultants who will provide their expertise in cost modeling and planning.

A timeline she presented during the session showed the work of GOMAP Stage Two through FY2024. A Stage Three would follow through FY2028, carrying out work that would prepare the Observatory for habitable worlds to enter Phase A of development in fiscal year 2029.

NASA wants to move forward “as quickly as possible” with the observatory’s design and technology development work, she said, but cautioned that the timeline she presented was theoretical. “It depends on the funding NASA receives.”

Clampin told the public meeting that the development of the Observatory of Habitable Worlds will be guided by six principles. The first is to establish a schedule, rather than letting the mission stretch out due to technological or scientific demands. “We’re going to treat the mission like a planetary mission that has a launch window,” he said. This, he said, will help contain costs while speeding up work on future observatories.

Other principles include the evolution of previously demonstrated technologies, such as segmented mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope and a coronagraph instrument under development for the Roman Nancy Grace Space Telescope; use new generation launchers with increased payload mass and volume; and making the telescope compatible with satellite servicing technologies so that it can be refurbished and upgraded. Two other principles are strong scientific and technical margins for its design and the maturation of key technologies before moving to large-scale development.

This approach would prepare for the launch of the Observatory of Habitable Worlds in the early 2040s. However, some scientists want NASA to move faster, not only so that the mission can be launched sooner, but also to accelerate the development of the far-infrared and X-ray missions which are also part of the new major observatories.

During another lecture session on Jan. 11, Jason Tumlinson, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute, showed a long-term budget projection that launched the Habitable Worlds Observatory in 2041, with the Far Infrared and x-rays in 2047. and 2051. “I think it’s too slow,” he said. “That’s what we want, but it’s not soon enough.”

He showed an alternative budget projection that took the Observatory of Habitable Worlds up to 2035, with the next two missions following in 2040 and 2045. This, he argued, could be done by increasing the budget of NASA astrophysics, currently about $1.5 billion a year, down to $2.5. billion per year later in the 2020s.

“It’s doable if we want to,” he said. “It’s actually achievable if our community comes together and not just asks for it, but demands it.”

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