Jan 14, 2020

The next great observatories

"The Pillars of Creation." Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA

Four groups of competing astronomers and astrophysicists have teamed up to present a grand vision for NASA as the community grapples with what the agency's science program should prioritize.

Driving the news: Billed the "New Great Observatories," the teams behind the Lynx, LUVOIR, HabEx and Origins missions are advocating that NASA commit to building all four of these expensive, large space telescopes.

  • "These are four astonishing visions that really are this unified vision for a new constellation of great observatories," astrophysicist Grant Tremblay told Axios.

The big picture: The lobbying comes as the astronomy and astrophysics communities work to set priorities for NASA's next 10 years of astronomy in its decadal survey.

  • The document's recommendation about which of these flagship missions should be funded holds major weight in the community.

Details: If all four missions are developed and funded, it could allow NASA the opportunity to have all of them up and running together in the next few decades, giving scientists a chance to peer into the universe as never before.

  • LUVOIR and HabEx are both focused on discovering and characterizing potentially Earth-like planets far from our solar system.
  • Lynx is an X-ray observatory designed to illuminate the light of distant stars, learn more about how black holes evolved and understand the structure of the universe.
  • The Origins Space Telescope is expected to help scientists gather data on how galaxies and planets themselves formed, potentially illuminating the origins of life.

Yes, but: It won't be cheap to make this plan happen. According to the collaboration, it would take about $1 billion in extra annual funding to have three of these missions in space by the mid-2040s.

  • The scientific community has also become somewhat wary of big missions after cost overruns and technical issues have plagued the development of the nearly $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope expected to launch next year, so four of these large missions at a time might be a hard sell.

Go deeper: NASA intern discovers new exoplanet

Editor's note: This story was corrected to show the time frame in which these telescopes could launch to orbit is by the mid-2040s (not within 10 years).

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Saying goodbye to the Spitzer Space Telescope

The Tarantula Nebula as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Thursday, NASA will shut down the Spitzer Space Telescope, ending a mission that transformed how we understand the invisible machinations of the universe.

Why it matters: While the telescope is still able to function today, NASA made the decision to shut it down, saying $14 million per year is too high a cost for its diminishing science return as the observatory will likely be inoperable soon.

Go deeperArrowJan 28, 2020

Astronomy's existential crisis

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios; Photo: NASA/Getty Handout

Astronomers are grappling with setting scientific priorities, charges of sexism and racial discrimination, and thorny ethical questions about how they interact with communities they work in.

What's happening: Astronomers are currently debating where and how much money should be directed to large-scale missions versus smaller ones.

Go deeperArrowJan 21, 2020

Trump administration seeks 12% boost for NASA in new budget

The Moon, AKA the apple of NASA's eye. Photo: NASA

The Trump administration is going all-in on NASA's Artemis program to get astronauts back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Driving the news: The White House is asking Congress for a 12% boost to the space agency's budget for 2021, and it estimates NASA's Moon to Mars initiative will cost about $71.2 billion from 2021 to 2025.

Go deeperArrowFeb 11, 2020 - Science