After JWST, what’s the next big thing for astronomers?

After JWST, what’s the next big thing for astronomers?

What does it take over 20,000 engineers and hundreds of scientists to build? A space telescope – specifically, the James Webb Space Telescope.

Thankfully, the effort was well worth it, with an abundance of incredible results from NASA’s newest observatory in its first six months of science operations. But what comes next? John Mather, a Nobel-winning astronomer and a driving force behind the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb or JWST), shared his visions of what all those engineers and scientists might tackle next on 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 dates back to before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, when the first ideas for the Next Generation Space Telescope (which later became JWST) were tossed around in the 1980s. realizing a dream like JWST required decades of innovation by countless scientists and engineers, including inventing “new flavors of detectors” for the telescope to make the observations they hoped for.

Related: James Webb Telescope’s best images of all time (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 address to the convention. “And we’re going to keep doing hard things.”

Some targets are closer than others, and there are so many swirling around in astronomers’ minds. “I can’t tell you all the great things that are coming, so I’ll tell you what I’m most interested in,” Mather said.

There are a number of exciting new observatories coming online in the coming months and years, including Europe’s Euclid mission and NASA’s Roman Nancy Grace Space Telescope, which will search for clues to the long-standing mysteries of matter. dark and dark energy. The Vera Rubin Observatory, a giant project currently under construction in the high deserts of Chile, will survey the entire sky looking for tiny changes, known as transients. Astronomers think the observatory will spot millions of points of interest each night – so many that it will be a challenge to analyze them all. “Maybe this ChatGPT thing will help,” Mather joked.

A view of the Vera Rubin Observatory in Cerro Pachón, Chile, in 2020; the telescope will begin observations later this year. (Image credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA)

Looking a little 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 the Astro2020 Decadal Survey.

Mather said he thinks this project is quite achievable and may even be easier to complete than JWST, which notoriously struggled to meet budgets and deadlines. Because rocket technology is constantly improving — and getting cheaper — he suggested it might be possible to assemble the Habitable Worlds Observatory and other next-generation telescopes in space instead of on the ground.

And it’s not just about space telescopes. Mather said he looks forward to seeing how the giant telescopes, about 30 meters in diameter, revolutionize astronomy here on Earth.

And he’s dreaming even bigger than NASA’s official plans: Maybe one day these ground-based behemoths will even work alongside space observatories in what Mather calls “hybrid space-ground” structures. For example, a key technique of ground-based astronomers relies on small instruments called coronagraphs that lock out stars and detect nearby faint planets. Perhaps one day, Mather claimed, we could fly a giant star shadow into orbit and match it with the telescope on the ground.

It’s not clear where such ambitions might lead us, but to date, every time our technology has improved, we’ve learned great strides about the universe – often finding something completely unknown. Mather closed his talk by asking rhetorically what we will see with all this new technology. “I don’t know,” he said, “but much more detail and much further than you can now.”

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