Why Not Assemble Space Telescopes In Space?

Artist rendering of an in-space assembled observatory concept with a 20-meter diameter primary mirror. (NASA’s  In Space Assembled Telescope Study, iSAT)

As we grow more ambitious in our desires to see further and more precisely in space, the need for larger and larger telescope mirrors becomes inevitable.  Only with collection of significantly more photons by a super large mirror can the the quality of the “seeing” significantly improve.

The largest mirror in space now is the Hubble Space Telescope at 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) and that will be overtaken by the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) when it launches (now scheduled for late 2021.)  But already astronomers and space scientists are pressing for larger mirrors to accomplish what the space telescopes of today cannot do.

This is evident in the National Academies of Sciences Decadal Survey underway which features four candidate Flagship-class observatories for the 2030s.    Three proposals call for telescope mirrors that are significantly larger than the Hubble’s, and the most ambitious by far is LUVOIR  which has been proposed at 15.1 meters (or 50 feet) or at 8 meters (about 30 feet), or maybe something in between.  A primary goal of LUVOIR, and the reason for the large size of its mirrors, is that it will be looking for signs of biology on distant exoplanets — an extremely ambitious and challenging goal.

The LUVOIR team would have argued for an even larger telescope mirror except that 15.1 meters is the maximum folded size that would fit into the storage space available on the super heavy lift rockets expected to be ready by the 2030s.

This desire for larger and larger space telescopes has rekindled dormant but long-present interest in having an alternative to sending multi-billion dollar payloads into space via one launch only.  The alternative is “in-space assembly,” and NASA has shown increased interest in pushing the idea and technology forward.

Nick Siegler, Chief Technologist of NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and others proposed a study of robotic in-space assembly in 2018.  The idea was accepted by the NASA Director for Astrophysics Paul Hertz and Siegler said the results are promising.

The International Space Station’s robotic Canadarm2 and Dextre carry an instrument assembly after removing it from the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon cargo ship (upper right), which is docked at the Harmony node of the ISS. (NASA

“For space telescopes larger than LUVOIR, in-space assembly will probably be a necessity because it’s unlikely that heavy-lift rockets will be getting any bigger than what’s being built now,” Siegler said. … Read more

Great Nations Need Great Observatories

This new image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows the tentacled Southern Crab Nebula. The nebula, officially known as Hen 2-104, appears to have two nested hourglass-shaped structures that were sculpted by a whirling pair of stars in a binary system. The duo consists of an aging red giant star and a burned-out star, a white dwarf. The red giant is shedding its outer layers and some of this ejected material is attracted by the gravity of the companion white dwarf. The result is that both stars are embedded in a flat disk of gas stretching between them. This belt of material constricts the outflow of gas so that it only speeds away above and below the disk. The result is an hourglass-shaped nebula. The bubbles of gas and dust appear brightest at the edges, giving the illusion of crab leg structures. These “legs” are likely to be the places where the outflow slams into surrounding interstellar gas and dust, or possibly material which was earlier lost by the red giant star.  (NASA and ESA)

The Hubble Space Telescope, arguably the jewel in the crown of NASA’s science missions, was launched 29 years ago.  It has been providing scientists and the public with a steady stream of previously unimagined insights about the cosmos — plus those jaw-dropping, very high-resolution images like the one above — pretty much ever since.

It has also provided the best example to date of what humans can do in space with its five repair and upgrade missions.  It did indeed launch to great skepticism, especially after a near fatal flaw was found in its key mirror.  It was also considered over budget at launch, way behind schedule and questionable scientifically and had to be fixed in orbit 353 miles into space.

The Hubble Space Telescope after its second repair and upgrade mission in 1998. (NASA)

But almost three decades into its mission now — and with decades more service likely — it clearly shows what an exceedingly ambitious project can deliver and the level of excellence that NASA, its European Space Agency partner and space scientists and engineers can achieve.  Talk about soft power.

This is important to remember as the agency’s 40-year-old Great Observatories program –that the Hubble Telescope is a part of –is under considerable threat.

The mission that was supposed to fly in the 2010s, the James Webb Space Telescope, is also way over budget, way behind schedule, and now described as a financial threat to other NASA missions. … Read more

A National Strategy for Finding and Understanding Exoplanets (and Possibly Extraterrestrial Life)

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine took an in-depth look at what NASA, the astronomy community and the nation need to grow the burgeoning science of exoplanets — planets outside our solar system that orbit a star. (NAS)


An extensive, congressionally-directed study of what NASA needs to effectively learn how exoplanets form and whether some may support life was released today, and it calls for major investments in next-generation space and ground telescopes.  It also calls for the adoption of an increasingly multidisciplinary approach for addressing the innumerable questions that remain unanswered.

While the recommendations were many, the top line calls were for a sophisticated new space-based telescope for the 2030s that could directly image exoplanets, for approval and funding of the long-delayed and debated WFIRST space telescope, and for the National Science Foundation and to help fund two of the very large ground-based telescopes now under development.

The study of exoplanets has seen remarkable discoveries in the past two decades.  But the in-depth study from the private, non-profit National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concludes that there is much more that we don’t understand than that we do, that our understandings are “substantially incomplete.”

So the two overarching goals for future exoplanet science are described as these:


  • To understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems as products of star formation and characterize the diversity of their architectures, composition, and environments.
  • To learn enough about exoplanets to identify potentially habitable environments and search for scientific evidence of life on worlds orbiting other stars.


Given the challenge, significance and complexity of these science goals, it’s no wonder that young researchers are flocking to the many fields included in exoplanet science.  And reflecting that, it is perhaps no surprise that the NAS survey of key scientific questions, goals, techniques, instruments and opportunities runs over 200 pages. (A webcast of a 1:00 pm NAS talk on the report can be accessed here.)


Artist’s concept showing a young sun-like star surrounded by a planet-forming disk of gas and dust.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

These ambitious goals and recommendations will now be forwarded to the arm of the National Academies putting together 2020 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey — a community-informed blueprint of priorities that NASA usually follows.

This priority-setting is probably most crucial for the two exoplanet direct imaging missions now being studied as possible Great Observatories for the 2030s — the paradigm-changing space telescopes NASA has launched almost every decade since the 1970s.

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False Positives, False Negatives; The World of Distant Biosignatures Attracts and Confounds

This artist’s illustration shows two Earth-sized planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope looked for signs of atmospheres around these planets. (NASA/ESA/STScI/J. de Wit, MIT)

What observations, or groups of observations, would tell exoplanet scientists that life might be present on a particular distant planet?

The most often discussed biosignature is oxygen, the product of life on Earth.  But while oxygen remains central to the search for biosignatures afar, there are some serious problems with relying on that molecule.

It can, for one, be produced without biology, although on Earth biology is the major source.  Conditions on other planets, however, might be different, producing lots of oxygen without life.

And then there’s the troubling reality that for most of the time there has been life on Earth, there would not have been enough oxygen produced to register as a biosignature.  So oxygen brings with it the danger of both a false positive and a false negative.

Wading through the long list of potential other biosignatures is rather like walking along a very wet path and having your boots regularly pulled off as they get captured by the mud.  Many possibilities can be put forward, but all seem to contain absolutely confounding problems.

With this reality in mind, a group of several dozen very interdisciplinary scientists came together more than a year ago in an effort to catalogue the many possible biosignatures that have been put forward and then to describe the pros and the cons of each.

“We believe this kind of effort is essential and needs to be done now,” said Edward Schwieterman, an astronomy and astrobiology researcher at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

“Not because we have the technology now to identify these possible biosignatures light years away, but because the space and ground-based telescopes of the future need to be designed so they can identify them. ”

“It’s part of what may turn out to be a very long road to learning whether or not we are alone in the universe”.


Artistic representations of some of the exoplanets detected so far with the greatest potential to support liquid surface water, based on their size and orbit.  All of them are larger than Earth and their composition and habitability remains unclear. They are ranked here from closest to farthest from Earth. 

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Putting Together a Community Strategy To Search for Extraterrestrial Life

I regret that the formatting of this column was askew earlier; I hope it didn’t make reading too difficult.  But now those problems are fixed.

The scientific search underway for life beyond Earth requires input from many disciplines and fields. Strategies forward have to hear and take in what scientists in those many fields have to say. (NASA)

Behind the front page space science discoveries that tell us about the intricacies and wonders of our world are generally years of technical and intellectual development, years of planning and refining, years of problem-defining and problem-solving.  And before all this, there also years of brainstorming, analysis and strategizing about which science goals should have the highest priorities and which might be most attainable.

That latter process is underway now in regarding the search for life in the solar system and beyond, with numerous teams of scientists tackling specific areas of interest and concern and turning their group discussions into white papers.  In this case, the white papers will then go on to the National Academy of Sciences for a blue-ribbon panel review and ultimately recommendations on which subjects are exciting and mature enough for inclusion in a decadal survey and possible funding.

This is a generally little-known part of the process that results in discoveries, but scientists certainly understand how they are essential.  That’s why hundreds of scientists contribute their ideas and time — often unpaid — to help put together these foundational documents.

With its call for extraterrestrial habitability white papers, the NAS got more than 20 diverse and often deeply thought out offerings.  The papers will be studied now by an ad hoc, blue ribbon committee of scientists selected by the NAS, which will have the first of two public meetings in Irvine, Calif. on Jan. 16-18.

Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a leader of many NASA study projects and a astrobiologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Fight Center. (NASA)

Then their recommendations go up further to the decadal survey teams that will set formal NASA priorities for the field of astronomy and astrophysics and planetary science.  This community-based process that has worked well for many scientific disciplines since they began in the late 1950s.

I’m particularly familiar with two of these white paper processes — one produced at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo and the other with NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS.)  What they have to say is most interesting.Read more

A Vision That Could Supercharge NASA

An artist rendering of an approximately 16-meter telescope in space.  This image was created for an earlier large space telescope feasibility project called ATLAST, but it is similar to what is being discussed inside and outside of NASA as a possible great observatory after the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.  Advocates say such a large space telescope would revolutionize the search for life on exoplanets, as well as providing the greatest observing ever for general astrophysics. (NASA)

Let your mind wander for a moment and let it land on the most exciting and meaningful NASA mission that you can imagine.  An undertaking, perhaps, that would send astronauts into deep space, that would require enormous technological innovation, and that would have ever-lasting science returns.

Many will no doubt think of Mars and the dream of sending astronauts there to explore.  Others might imagine setting up a colony on that planet, or perhaps in the nearer term establishing a human colony on the moon.  And now that we know there’s a rocky exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri — the star closest to our sun — it’s tempting to wish for a major robotic or, someday, human mission headed there to search for life.

All are dream-worthy space projects for sure.  But some visionary scientists (and most especially one well-known former astronaut) have been working for some time on another potential grand endeavor — one that you probably have not heard or thought about, yet might be the most compelling and achievable of them all.

It would return astronauts to deep space and it would have them doing the kind of very difficult but essential work needed for space exploration in the far future. It would use the very costly and very powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule being built now by NASA and Lockheed Martin respectively.  Most important, it would almost certainly revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos near and far.

At a recent meeting of the House Science Committee, chairman Lamar Smith, said of the hearing’s purpose that, “Presidential transitions offer the opportunities to reinvigorate national goals. They bring fresh perspectives and new ideas that energize our efforts.”

That said, here’s the seemingly feasible project that fires my imagination the most.

It has been quietly but with persistence promoted most visibly by John Grunsfeld, the former astronaut who flew to the Hubble Space Telescope three times to fix and upgrade it, who has spent 58 hours on spacewalks outside the Shuttle, and towards the end of his 40 years with the agency ultimately became an associate administrator and head of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.… Read more

Storming the One-Meter-Per-Second Barrier

Kitt Peak National Observatory mountain top at Dusk looking north. Visible in the picture are the NOAO 4-meter Mayall, the Steward Observatory 90-inch, the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Spacewatch Telescopes, LOTIS, 0.4-meter Visitor Center Telescope, Case Western Reserve University Observatory and the SARA Observatory. Credit: P. Marenfeld (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

The Kitt Peak National Observatory, on the Tohono O’odham reservation outside Tucson, will be home to a next-generation spectrometer and related system which will allow astronomers to detect much smaller exoplanets through the radial velocity method.  P. Marenfeld (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

When the first exoplanet was identified via the radial velocity method, the Swiss team was able to detect a wobble in the star 51 Pegasi at a rate of 50 meters per second.   The wobble is the star’s movement back and forth caused by the gravitational pull of the planet, and in that first case it was dramatic — the effects of a giant Jupiter-sized planet orbiting extremely close to the star.

Many of the early exoplanet discoveries were of similarly large planets close to their host stars, but it wasn’t because there are so many of them in the cosmos.  Rather, it was a function of the capabilities of the spectrographs and other instruments used to view the star.  They were pioneering breakthroughs, but they didn’t have the precision needed to measure wobbles other than the large, dramatic ones caused by a close-in, huge planet.

That was the mid 1990s, and radial velocity astronomers have worked tirelessly since to “beat down” that 50 meters per second number.  And twenty years later, radial velocity astronomers using far more precise instruments and more refined techniques have succeeded substantially:  1 meter per second of wobble is now achieved for the quietest stars.  That has vastly improved their ability to find smaller exoplanets further from their stars and is a major achievement.  But it has nonetheless been a major frustration for astronomers because to detect terrestrial exoplanets in the Earth-sized range, they have to get much more precise  — in the range of tens of centimeters per second.

A number of efforts to build systems that can get that low are underway, most notably the ESPRESSO spectrograph scheduled to begin work on the High Accuracy Radial Vlocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) in Chile next year. Then earlier this month an ambitious NASA-National Science Foundation project was awarded to Penn State University to join the race.  The next-generation spectrograph is scheduled to be finished in 2019 and installed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and its stated goal is to reach the 20 to 30 centimeters per second range.

Suvrath Mahadevan, an assistant professor at Penn State, is principal investigator for the project.  It is called NEID, which means ‘to see’ in the language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land the Kitt Peak observatory is located.… Read more

The Habitable Zone Gets Poked, Tweaked and Stretched to the Limits

To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the "Goldilocks" or habitable zone around stars--where it's not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)

To find another planet like Earth, astronomers are focusing on the “Goldilocks” or habitable zone around stars–where it’s not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to exist on the surface. (NASA)

For more than 20 years now — even before the first detection of an extra-solar planet — scientists have posited, defined and then debated the existence and nature of a habitable zone.  It’s without a doubt a central scientific concept, and  the idea has caught on with the public (and the media) too.  The discovery of “habitable zone planets” has become something of a staple of astronomy and astrophysics.

But beneath the surface of this success is a seemingly growing discomfort about how the term is used. Not only do scientists and the general public have dissimilar understandings of what a habitable zone entails, but scientists have increasingly divergent views among themselves as well.

And all this is coming to the fore at a time when a working definition of the habitable zone is absolutely essential to planning for what scientists and enthusiasts hope will be a long-awaited major space telescope focused first and foremost on exoplanets.  If selected by NASA as a flagship mission for the 2030s, how such a telescope is designed and built will be guided by where scientists determine they have the best chance of finding signs of extraterrestrial life — a task that has ironically grown increasingly difficult as more is learned about those distant solar systems and planets.

Most broadly, the habitable zone is the area around a star where orbiting planets could have conditions conducive to life.  Traditionally, that has mean most importantly orbiting far enough from a star that it doesn’t become a desiccated wasteland and close enough that it is not forever frozen.  In this broad definition, the sometimes presence of liquid water on the surface of a planet is the paramount issue in terms of possible extraterrestrial life.

 The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The estimated habitable zones of A stars, G stars and M stars are compared in this diagram. More refinement is needed to better understand the size of these zones. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

It was James Kasting of Penn State University, Daniel Whitmire, then of Louisiana State University, and Ray Reynolds of NASA’s Ames Research Center who defined the modern outlines of a habitable zone, though others had weighed in earlier.  But Kasting and the others wrote with greater detail and proposed a model that took into account not only distance from the host star, but also the presence of planetary systems that could maintain relatively stable climates by cycling essential compounds.… Read more

Movement in The Search For ExoLife

A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI

A notional version of an observatory for the 2030s that could provide revolutionary direct imaging of exoplanets. GSFC/JPL/STScI

Assuming for a moment that life exists on some exoplanets, how might researchers detect it?

This is hardly a new question.  More than ten years ago, competing teams of exo-scientists and engineers came up with proposals for a NASA flagship space observatory capable of identifying possible biosignatures on distant planets. No consensus was reached, however, and no mission was developed.

But early this year, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz announced the formation of four formal Science and Technology Definition Teams to analyze proposals for a grand space observatory for the 2030s.  Two of them in particular would make possible the kind of super-high resolution viewing needed to understand the essential characteristics of exoplanets.  As now conceived, that would include a capability to detect molecules in distant atmospheres that are associated with living things.

These two exo-friendly missions are the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared (LUVOIR) Surveyor and the Habitable Exoplanet (HabEx) Imaging Mission.   Both would be on the scale of, and in the tradition of, scientifically and technically ground-breaking space observatories such as the Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018.  These flagship missions provide once in a decade opportunities to move space science dramatically forward, and not-surprisingly at a generally steep cost.


A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and the proposed High Definition Space Telescope (HDST) at a lookback time of approximately 10 billion years (z = 2) The renderings show a one-hour observation for each space observatory. Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high image quality of HDST resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only HDST can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. Image credit: D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)500 light years away, as imaged by Hubble and potential of the kind of telescope the exoplanet community is working towards.

A simulated spiral galaxy as viewed by Hubble, and as viewed by the kind of high definition space telescope now under study.   Hubble detects the bulge and disk, but only the high definition image resolves the galaxy’s star-forming regions and its dwarf satellite. The zoom shows the inner disk region, where only high definition can resolve the star-forming regions and separate them from the redder, more distributed old stellar population. (D. Ceverino, C. Moody, G. Snyder, and Z. Levay (STScI)


Because the stakes are so high, planning and development takes place over decades — twenty years is the typical time elapsed between the conception of a grand flagship mission and its launch.  So while what is happening now with the science and technology definition teams  is only a beginning — albeit one with quite a heritage already — it’s an essential, significant and broadly-supported start.  Over the next three years, the teams will undertake deep dives into the possibilities and pitfalls of LUVOIR and HabEx, as well as the two other proposals.  There’s a decent chance that a version of one of the four will become a reality.… Read more

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