Astronomers at NASA are always looking for the next big thing. They recently presented their plans for a successor to the JWST, a 6.5-meter space telescope that went into operation last year. NASA is now preparing an optical telescope the size of the JWST with a huge new goal: hunting for signs of life on Earth-like planets by the early 2040s.
“The telescope will, like JWST, be perched at L2, a gravitational balance point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.” Unlike JWST, it will be designed for robotic servicing and upgrades, which could enable it to operate for decades, getting better with age. “Without a dedicated budget.” Mark Clampin, NASA’s astrophysics division director, says.
They are calling this new telescope the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO). HWO is a mission concept for directly imagining planetary systems orbiting sun-like stars. HWO will be sensitive to many types of planets, but its primary purpose will be to directly scan and characterize Earth-like exoplanets for the first time. HWO will seek signs of habitability, such as water, and be sensitive to chemicals in the atmosphere that could indicate biological activity, such as oxygen or ozone, by monitoring the spectra of these planets.
In addition to the search for life on Earth-like exoplanets, HWO will enable a wide range of general astrophysics research, from studying the earliest epochs of the universe’s history to understanding the life cycle and deaths of the most massive stars, which eventually supply the elements required to support life as we know it.
The same technology that will allow HWO to investigate Earth-like planets will be used for these studies: a huge, stable space telescope with an extraordinary resolution that is sensitive to ultraviolet, optical, and near-infrared photons. Furthermore, the HWO concept is especially appealing because it is ready for development, being both technologically and scientifically implementable within the next decade.
So far, numerous concepts have been made for NASA’s HWO, including a single-segment, 4-meter mirror observatory named HabEx and a multisegmented, 15-meter observatory called LUVOIR.