The much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope will soon launch. But with plenty more epic astronomy instruments planned over the next few years, the fun is just beginning
8 December 2021
As 2021 draws to a close, astronomers’ eyes are fixed firmly are on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is set to launch by the end of December. It is one of the most hotly anticipated scientific instruments ever, and promises to give us an incredible new view of the early universe and the atmospheres of alien planets circling other stars.
But the JWST is far from the end of the story. The next decade or so will see plenty of other ground-breaking observatories start up. Here are three of the most exciting prospects.
PLANETARY TRANSITS AND OSCILLATIONS OF STARS (PLATO)
Expected launch date: 2026
This European Space Agency project will scour a million stars looking for blips in their light that betray the presence of an orbiting planet. Similar kinds of previous telescopes have only been able to see planets that are close to their stars and so pass in front of them frequently. Plato will linger on each star for longer and so has the chance to detect planets that are more distant from their star, with a longer orbital period. In particular, the mission is focused on trying to spot signs of rocky exoplanets in the habitable zone, the narrow region of a star system in which temperatures are right for liquid water. It also has the tools to characterise such worlds, providing clues as to how Earth-like they may be.
NANCY GRACE ROMAN SPACE TELESCOPE
Expected launch date: 2025
Like the James Webb Space Telescope (see main story), the Roman Space Telescope, named after the first female executive at NASA, will observe mainly infrared radiation. But while the JWST focuses on detail, Roman is going for the big picture. The telescope has a panoramic field of view more than 100 times greater than the JWST’s. During its first five years, Roman will image more than 50 times as much sky as the Hubble Space Telescope covered in its first 30 years. That will allow it to make the first wide-field infrared maps of the sky. It is hoped this will help solve mysteries like the true identity of dark matter and dark energy. Astronomers can see the influence of these substances on the universe but have not been able to explain what they are.
LASER INTERFEROMETER SPACE ANTENNA (LISA)
Expected launch date: 2034
We first detected gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space, in 2015. So far, we have seen waves from black hole and neutron star collisions. LISA, a mission led by the European Space Agency, will be a much larger gravitational wave detector than existing ground-based ones. It will consist of three spacecraft positioned 2.5 million kilometres apart in a triangular formation. This space detector will be sensitive to gravitational waves with extremely low frequencies. Among other things, it could allow us to spot planets in other galaxies just from the subtle way in which they influence the gravitational waves produced by their parent stars. Until now, all confirmed discoveries of exoplanets have been in our own Milky Way galaxy.
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