Space telescope located in outer solar system

Space telescope located in outer solar system

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I want to pose a question from someone who's astronomy knowledge would fit neatly onto a single piece of paper so please bear this in mind with any comments or answers. I am interested and want to learn. I could not find a sane answer to this via a search engine.

The question: If in theory we placed another Hubble telescope (or similar instrument of at least equal or ideally more power) either on or very near the dwarf Pluto, as in in its orbit if we did not consider a ground mounted instrument, what if anything would or could we gain in astronomical knowledge ?

I do realise data transmission from such a distance would take time, power could be a concern and the fact if anything went wrong it would be beyond any sensible help, not to mention logistics in getting it there in the first place.

I also realise this is a completely hypothetical question too but I am genuinely curious if we would "see more" (so to speak) with such an instrument so far out.

The disadvantages would likely outweight the advantages.

  1. It's cold out there. This makes it easier to keep an infra-red telescope cool

  2. The sun's just a super-bright star. This means more of the sky is visible and not in the glare of the sun. However you orbit so slowly that there will be a few objects that you won't be able to image because they are behind the sun for years.

  3. There's no Earth to get in the way. The Earth blocks half the sky for Hubble. Putting a telescope on Pluto would have the same problem.

  4. There's no space debris there (yet)

There may be other advantages, but compared to the immense difficulty of putting a probe into an 250 year orbit (you need to get it out there, with enough fuel left to put it into orbit) And the time it takes (you can't take much advantage of slingshots because you need to be in an orbit not just on an escape trajectory). And all the other disadvantages

  1. Saw something interesting, can't just get hubble to take a look, because there is a five hour light time.

  2. No power, sun is too weak so depend on a box of plutonium or similar.

  3. No nice high resolution images, sorry those take too long to download. Low resolution only.

  4. We've never landed anything as complex and fragile as Hubble on any other body, And the landing has to be fully automatic.

And you don't get to see anything new because space is just as clear from Hubble's orbit as it is from Pluto.

There is one excellent reason for putting a space telescope way out from the sun and that's because it's dark out there! No matter where you look, there's always a background sky level that limits the ultimate sensitivity of a telescope. Now even in the near-earth space environment the sky is markedly darker than it is for even the darkest ground-based sites, and this after Hubble's sharp angular resolution contributes heavily to its sensitivity to distant the faintest stars, galaxies in the early Universe, etc.

The Earth, however, orbits in the plane of the solar system, and the Sun lights up the residual dust that it contains. The sky in the outer solar system is nearly 100x darker, and that maps directly into greater sensitivity. For faint compact sources limited by the brightness of the sky, the sensitivity of telescope goes like D^4, where D is the diameter of its mirror. Hubble at the edge of the solar system could detect objects as well as a 7-meter telescope orbiting Earth.

As noted, however, by a previous answer, however, deployment, operations, telemetry of a telescope way out in say the Kuiper Belt has its own issues and expenses. Build a bigger telescope near Earth or send a smaller one way out? The bigger telescope will still clean up on brighter objects, spectroscopy, and so on, in the end being likely more versatile. But the question has been asked in real studies, and if you can crack the operation/telemetry issues, then it might deserve a deeper look.

Montessori Astronomy – Space and our solar system

Space and our solar system have always been a favorite hobby of mine. Astronomy is one of those subjects in school which has unfortunately become very academic and difficult to comprehend, especially for small children. Thankfully, there are many fun and educational activities to spark curiosity and excitement.

Using Montessori-inspired materials can assist you in turning astronomy into an adventure that both challenges and educates children. In this lesson, you’ll give your kids an experience that requires many of their senses and will pique their interest in space, our solar system, and all the fun things floating around up there.

Being quite comprehensive this lesson has many steps to it. And, as you may have seen in previous posts, I like to be thorough. Therefore, I suggest reading through the entire article and retrieving all the recommended materials for the lesson beforehand. There are many and they originate from a wide variety of resources.

Solar System’s Most Distant Object Confirmed

Nicknamed ‘Farfarout’ and officially designated 2018 AG37, the newly-confirmed planetoid has a very elongated orbit that takes it out to 175 AU (astronomical units) at its most distant, and inside the orbit of Neptune, to around 27 AU, when it is close to the Sun. Its average distance from the Sun is 132 AU for comparison, Pluto is only 39 AU from the Sun. 2018 AG37 will be given an official name — like Sedna and other similar objects — after its orbit is better determined over the next few years.

Solar system distances to scale, showing 2018 AG37 compared to other known solar system objects, including the previous record holder 2018 VG18. Image credit: Roberto Molar Candanosa / Scott S. Sheppard, Carnegie Institution for Science / Brooks Bays, University of Hawai’i.

2018 AG37 was first detected in 2018 by astronomers using the Subaru 8-m telescope located atop Maunakea in Hawai’i.

The planetoid’s journey around the Sun takes about 1,000 years, crossing the orbit of Neptune every time.

This means it has likely experienced strong gravitational interactions with Neptune over the age of the Solar System, and is the reason why it has such a large and elongated orbit.

“A single orbit of Farfarout around the Sun takes a millennium,” said Dr. David Tholen, an astronomer in the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawai’i.

“Because of this long orbital, it moves very slowly across the sky, requiring several years of observations to precisely determine its trajectory.”

2018 AG37 is very faint, and based on its brightness and distance from the Sun, Dr. Tholen and colleagues estimate its diameter to be about 400 km (250 miles), putting it on the low end of being a dwarf planet, assuming it is an ice rich object.

“The discovery of Farfarout shows our increasing ability to map the outer Solar System and observe farther and farther towards the fringes of our Solar System,” said Dr. Scott S. Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“Only with the advancements in the last few years of large digital cameras on very large telescopes has it been possible to efficiently discover very distant objects like Farfarout.”

“Even though some of these distant objects are quite large, being dwarf planet in size, they are very faint because of their extreme distances from the Sun.”

“Farfarout is just the tip of the iceberg of solar system objects in the very distant Solar System.”

Because Neptune strongly interacts with 2018 AG37, the planetoid’s orbit and movement cannot be used to determine if there is another unknown massive planet in the very distant Solar System, since these interactions dominate 2018 AG37’s orbital dynamics.

“Farfarout’s orbital dynamics can help us understand how Neptune formed and evolved, as Farfarout was likely thrown into the outer solar system by getting too close to Neptune in the distant past,” said Dr. Chad Trujillo, an astronomer in the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Northern Arizona University.

“Farfarout will likely strongly interact with Neptune again since their orbits continue to intersect.”

The new observations of 2018 AG37 are reported in the Minor Planet Electronic Circular.

It's Official! Voyager 1 Spacecraft Has Left Solar System

A spacecraft from Earth has left its cosmic backyard and taken its first steps in interstellar space.

After streaking through space for nearly 35 years, NASA's robotic Voyager 1 probe finally left the solar system in August 2012, a study published today (Sept. 12) in the journal Science reports.

"Voyager has boldly gone where no probe has gone before, marking one of the most significant technological achievements in the annals of the history of science, and as it enters interstellar space, it adds a new chapter in human scientific dreams and endeavors," NASA science chief John Grunsfeld said in a statement. "Perhaps some future deep-space explorers will catch up with Voyager, our first interstellar envoy, and reflect on how this intrepid spacecraft helped enable their future." [Voyager 1 in Interstellar Space: Complete Coverage]

A long and historic journey

Voyager 1 launched on Sept. 5, 1977, about two weeks after its twin, Voyager 2. Together, the two probes conducted a historic "grand tour" of the outer planets, giving scientists some of their first up-close looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the moons of these faraway worlds.

The duo completed its primary mission in 1989, and then kept on flying toward the edge of the heliosphere, the huge bubble of charged particles and magnetic fields that the sun puffs out around itself. Voyager 1 has now popped free of this bubble into the exotic and unexplored realm of interstellar space, scientists say.

They reached this historic conclusion with a little help from the sun. A powerful solar eruption caused electrons in Voyager 1's location to vibrate signficantly between April 9 and May 22 of this year. The probe's plasma wave instrument detected these oscillations, and researchers used the measurements to figure out that Voyager 1's surroundings contained about 1.3 electrons per cubic inch (0.08 electrons per cubic centimeter).

That's far higher than the density observed in the outer regions of the heliosphere (roughly 0.03 electrons per cubic inch, or 0.002 electrons per cubic cm) and very much in line with the 1.6 electrons per cubic inch (0.10 electrons per cubic cm) or so expected in interstellar space. [Photos from NASA's Voyager 1 and 2 Probes]

"We literally jumped out of our seats when we saw these oscillations in our data &mdash they showed us that the spacecraft was in an entirely new region, comparable to what was expected in interstellar space, and totally different than in the solar bubble," study lead author Don Gurnett of the University of Iowa, the principal investigator of Voyager 1's plasma wave instrument, said in a statement.

It may seem surprising that electron density is higher beyond the solar system than in its extreme outer reaches. Interstellar space is, indeed, emptier than the regions in Earth's neighborhood, but the density inside the solar bubble drops off dramatically at great distances from the sun, researchers said.

Calculating a departure date

The study team wanted to know if Voyager 1 left the solar system sometime before April 2013, so they combed through some of the probe's older data. They found a monthlong period of electron oscillations in October-November 2012 that translated to a density of 0.004 electrons per cubic inch (0.006 electrons per cubic cm).

Using these numbers and the amount of ground that Voyager 1 covers &mdash about 325 million miles (520 million kilometers) per year &mdash the researchers calculated that the spacecraft likely left the solar system in August 2012.

That time frame matches up well with several other important changes Voyager 1 observed. On Aug. 25, 2012, the probe recorded a 1,000-fold drop in the number of charged solar particles while also measuring a 9 percent increase in fast-moving galactic cosmic rays, which originate beyond the solar system.

"These results, and comparison with previous heliospheric radio measurements, strongly support the view that Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause into the interstellar plasma on or about Aug. 25, 2012," Gurnett and his colleagues write in the new study.

At that point, Voyager 1 was about 11.25 billion miles (18.11 billion km) from the sun, or roughly 121 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The probe is now 11.66 billion miles (18.76 billion km) from the sun. (Voyager 2, which took a different route through the solar system, is currently 9.54 billion miles, or 15.35 billion km, from the sun.)

Magnetic-field mystery

Mission scientists have long pegged Voyager 1's departure from the solar system on the observation of three phenomena: a big drop in solar particles, a dramatic jump in galactic cosmic rays and a shift in the orientation of the surrounding magnetic field.

Voyager 1 has measured the first two changes, as noted above, but not the third the magnetic field is stronger than it used to be in the probe's location, but it hasn't changed direction.

This key point has led NASA and the mission team to proceed with caution. For example, they have held off on making any big announcements, despite several recent studies by outside researchers &mdash including one published last month&mdash suggesting that Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in July or August 2012.

But the new electron-density measurements have convinced Voyager mission scientists that the probe is, indeed, beyond the solar bubble.

After all, magnetic-field measurements were always regarded as a proxy for observations of electron density, said Voyager chief scientist Ed Stone, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

"The solar wind carries the solar magnetic field with it, and the interstellar wind carries the galactic magnetic field with it," Stone, who is not an author of the new Science paper, told "Once we got the plasma data itself in interstellar space, we knew we must have left the bubble."

(Voyager 1 launched with an instrument designed to measure plasma density directly, but it failed in 1980, forcing the team to get more creative.)

Scientists need a better understanding of the complex interface between the solar and galactic magnetic fields to figure out why Voyager 1 hasn't measured the predicted change in field direction, Stone said.

"What we need to do now is go back and look more carefully at the models of that interaction," he said.

Voyage of exploration

The Voyager mission has racked up a series of discoveries over the last 36 years, revealing key insights about the giant planets and their moons, as well as conditions at the edge of the solar system.

The spacecraft's arrival in interstellar space could bring many more exciting finds, the researchers said.

"Every day we look at data, we know we're looking at data that no one has seen before and is in a region where nothing has ever been before," Stone said. "I think we're all looking forward to learning a lot in the years ahead."

Voyager 1 could keep beaming data home for a while, provided nothing too important breaks down. The spacecraft's declining power supply won't force engineers to shut off the first instrument until 2020, mission scientists have said. All of Voyager 1's science gear will probably stop working by 2025.

Space telescope located in outer solar system - Astronomy

During 9.6 years in orbit, Kepler led to the discovery of more than 2,600 planets by observing more than half a million stars.

Kepler's legacy

After nine years in deep space collecting data that revealed our night sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets &ndash more planets even than stars &ndash NASA&rsquos Kepler space telescope was retired. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.


Kepler's Science Results

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The Top Science Results from the Kepler Mission

NASA's Kepler mission revolutionized our scientific understanding of our place in the cosmos by discovering that:

Planets outnumber the stars. Kepler has proven there are more planets than stars in our galaxy &mdash and knowing that revolutionizes our scientific understanding of our place in the cosmos.

Small planets are common. Kepler has shown us our galaxy is teeming with terrestrial-size worlds the most recent analysis of Kepler&rsquos discoveries concludes that 20 to 50 percent of the stars in the sky are likely to have small, possibly rocky planets similar in size to Earth within the habitable zone of their parent stars, where water could pool on the planet surface. We still have much to learn about whether any of them could host life.

Planets are diverse. Kepler has discovered a diversity of planet types, opening our eyes to new possibilities. The most common size of planet Kepler found doesn&rsquot exist in our solar system &mdash a world between the size of Earth and Neptune &mdash and we have much to learn about these planets.

Solar systems are diverse too! While our own inner solar system has four planets, Kepler found systems with considerably more planets &mdash up to eight &mdash orbiting close to their parent stars. The existence of these compact systems raises questions about how solar systems form: Are these planets &ldquoborn&rdquo close to their parent star, or do they form farther out and migrate in?

New insights revealed about stars. Besides launching us into the golden age of exoplanets, Kepler has reinvigorated the study of stars. Kepler observed more than a half million stars over the course of its nine years in operation.

Hubble’s Treasure Trove

“The idea for this project started five or six years ago at a conference about space weather,” says Susana Deustua (Ars Metrologia, formerly Space Telescope Science Institute), who led the study. An international group of astronomers, particle physicists, and planetary scientists put their heads together and came up with a plan. “Cosmic rays interact with the geomagnetic field,” Deustua adds. “We know that Hubble collects charged particles on its detector, therefore we should be able to glean information about the field from Hubble.”

The team dug into Hubble’s rich data archive. They looked for calibration images that were particularly well-suited for their plan and ended up with almost 100,000 images collected over the past 25 years.

Algorithms for finding and removing cosmic-ray traces from astronomical images have been around for decades. But rather than simply getting rid of the traces, the team wanted to learn as much as possible about the cosmic rays that caused them. “For example, we wanted to know how many pixels on the camera each cosmic ray affected and how much energy the particle lost in the process,” explains graduate student Nathan Miles (University of California), who is first author on the study.

Miles developed software to extract such information, using cloud computing services to carry out the time-demanding computations. His algorithm harvested more than 1 billion cosmic rays from the images.

Map of cosmic ray traces in one of the Hubble’s images. Traces may have different shapes and affect different number of pixels on the camera.
Nathan Miles

Gaia Space Telescope Measured The Acceleration Of The Solar System

The Gaia space telescope has measured the acceleration of the Solar System when it orbits the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

The Solar System motion relative to the stars agrees with the results by Finnish astronomers in the 19th century.

Moreover, the observational data by Gaia improves satellite navigation. Finnish researchers are participating in this massive endeavor, that results in three-dimensional mapping of our galaxy, to be completed in 2024.

Today, Dec. 3, 2020, the European Space Agency (ESA) released observational data from the Gaia telescope (Gaia Early Data Release 3 or EDR3), in continuation to the DR1 and DR2 releases of the years 2016 and 2018. Gaia accrues accurate knowledge about, for example, the Milky Way stars, distant extragalactic quasars, and the asteroids of our Solar System.

Quasars are bright, star-like objects that allow for the determination of planet Earth's orientation in space. With the help of their precise positions measured by Gaia, a new high-precision reference system can be constructed for defining the positions of stars, Solar System objects, and also satellites.

"The knowledge accrued by Gaia affects the precision of satellite navigation in the future. The satellite positions and Earth orientation in space are determined in a reference frame tied to the directions of quasars. The precision and state of the art of the reference frame are critical for the precision in navigation," says Professor Markku Poutanen at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute FGI, National Land Survey of Finland.

The precise observations of quasars resulted, for the first time, in a successful computation of the acceleration of the Solar System.

"The acceleration of the Solar System towards the center of the Milky Way, as measured by Gaia, is (2.32±0.16) x 10-10 m/s2 or, roughly, two one-hundred-billionth parts of the gravitational acceleration caused by the Earth on its surface, " summarizes Astronomy Professor Karri Muinonen at the Department of Physics, University of Helsinki, also Research Professor at the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute FGI.

Gaia in the research of asteroids

Gaia's data processing is carried out within the European DPAC network (Data Processing and Analysis Consortium) with more than 300 researchers. Solar System researchers at the University of Helsinki take part in the Gaia data processing in several different ways.

"We are responsible for the daily computation of orbits for asteroids discovered by Gaia. Based on these computations, ground-based follow-up observations are organized," describes Muinonen.

"Before data releases, we take part in the validation of Gaia observations of asteroid positions, brightnesses, and spectra. Our research with Gaia data focuses on asteroid orbits, rotation periods and pole orientations, masses, shapes, and surface structural and compositional properties. In the computation of collision probabilities for near-Earth asteroids, the precision of reference frames is completely central," continues Muinonen.

Asteroid observations by Gaia were published in DR2 in spring 2018 (14 099 asteroids). In the forthcoming DR3 release in spring 2022, there will be position and brightness data for tens of thousands of asteroids and, for the first time, asteroid spectra will also be released.

Years of work and billions of stars

The EDR3 data has been collected by Gaia from the end of July 2014. The data includes, for example, position and brightness data of 1,81 billion stars and color data of 1,55 billion stars from the time period of 34 months. Furthermore, the data more than triples the number of quasars observed for precise reference frames to 1,61 million.

EDR3 is a remarkable improvement, in terms of both numbers and precisions, as compared to the earlier releases. The newest release gives hints about the gigantic nature of the forthcoming DR3 release in spring 2022 and the final DR4 release after 2024.

Gaia observes astronomical objects systematically in the so-called L2 Lagrange point some 1,5 million kilometers from the Earth in the anti-sun direction. Gaia observes about two billion stars with a precision, at best, of one hundred millionths of a degree. The result will be a three-dimensional map of our galaxy.

Stellar motion in the future

Based on the Gaia data, researchers' have modeled the motion of stars in the Milky Way. They have produced an animation for the motion of 40 000 randomly selected stars on the sky 1.6 million years into the future.

"In the animation, short and long trails describe changes in stellar positions with 80 000 years. The former are mostly related to distant stars, whereas the latter are solely due to the nearby stars. Every now and then, short trails expand into long ones, and long trails shrink into short ones. This is also related to the changing distances of the stars," says Muinonen.

In the end of the animation, stars appear to be removed from the left and collected to the right. This is due to the Solar System's motion relative to the stars. A similar phenomenon can be seen when moving from a center of a forest islet to its boundary: the trees in the front gradually disappear whereas they seem to be collected in the back.

"This shows the average motion of the Solar System with respect to the surrounding stars. From the Finnish point of view, it is intriguing that the motion documented by Gaia agrees with the pioneering research about the Solar System's motion by Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander (1799-1875) in the 19th century at the Helsinki Observatory," concludes Muinonen.

Argelander was the first astronomer, who unequivocally calculated the direction of Solar System motion in space. He worked at the Observatory, University of Helsinki, then the Imperial Alexander University. He had made the observations at the Turku Observatory in 1827-1831 before the observatory moved to Helsinki. In Helsinki, he compiled the stellar catalog entitled "DLX stellarum fixarum positiones mediae ineunte anno 1830" that, as the title says, included the precise positions of 560 stars.

Movement of quasars is actually the movement of Solar System

More accurately, the apparent stellar streams include the information about the motion of the stars and the Solar System about the center of the Milky Way. The Gaia quasar observations allow for the determination of the acceleration related to this orbital motion.

Gaia has measured the apparent motions of quasars on the sky. These motions are tiny, about one thousandth part of the motion of stars 3000 light years from us. The apparent stream of quasars is directed toward the center of the Milky Way, that is, in the direction where the acceleration of the Solar System is pointing. Gaia has, in essence, measured the absolute motion of the Solar System relative to the distant universe. This motion derives from the gravitational forces by the Milky Way and all other objects in the universe.

New Space Telescope, 40 Times The Power Of Hubble, To Unlock Astronomy’s Future

“Hubble often takes images of distant gravitationally lensed galaxies to infer their substructure and to try to learn about early galaxies in general. For LUVOIR, we would have that same resolution for any galaxy! That’s truly revolutionary.” -John O’Meara

Since humanity first turned our gaze skyward, we’ve realized that the cosmic story of our existence — our origins, all that exists today, and what our ultimate fate is — is literally written across the Universe. Our understanding of what our Universe truly is, what it’s made up of, and how it came to be this way has improved dramatically every time we’ve built better instruments to probe the stars, galaxies, and the depths of space in new ways. The Hubble Space Telescope gave us a huge leap forward, showing us what our Universe looked like next year, James Webb will give us an equally big leap, showing us how our Universe came to be this way. To take that next giant leap means dreaming big, and seeking to answer the biggest questions astronomy has today. Only LUVOIR, a proposed 15.1-meter space telescope with 40 times the light-gathering power of Hubble, dares humanity to solve those puzzles.

LUVOIR, a concept for a Large UltraViolet, Optical, and InfraRed observatory, would basically be a scaled-up version of Hubble in space, capable of doing the science that was unfathomable a generation ago. That’s not to belittle Hubble’s accomplishments at all! Consider what Hubble has given us: a revolution in cosmology, a revolution in our understanding of galaxies and their building blocks, a keen eye on our dynamic Solar System, and our first steps into the study of exoplanetary atmospheres. At 15.1 meters, with a segmented design, instrumental capabilities far outstripping what we have today, superior resolution, and so much more, LUVOIR would represent not an incremental improvement, but a transformative one, over anything not only in existence, but over any observatory ever proposed.

I spoke with John O’Meara, the lead of Cosmic Origins Science for LUVOIR, about a wide variety of topics related to this proposed telescope. In every astronomical arena you can imagine — from the Solar System to exoplanets, stars, galaxies, intergalactic gas, dark matter and more — a telescope this advanced would push our scientific knowledge forward in a way nothing else ever has. Going so much larger, combined with the other advanced technology that will be aboard LUVOIR, makes this truly the astronomer’s dream observatory. Compared with what we can do today, here’s a look at six things a giant space telescope like this would allow us to learn.

Solar System — Imagine what it would be like to directly image geysers on Europa and Enceladus, eruptions on Io, or to map out the magnetic fields of the gas giants from right here, near our own world? Imagine looking out at a distant world in the Kuiper belt, and not just getting a single pixel of light to extrapolate from, but to take an image of the world itself and be able to discern surface features? That’s the promise of a 10-or-more-meter space telescope, which should not only be able to take incredible images of these worlds, but to obtain spectra of a huge variety of features on them.

Exoplanets — Instead of inferring the existence of planets from their transits or the wobbles they cause in the orbits of their parent stars, LUVOIR will have the capability to image a great many of them directly. With a coronagraph of unprecedented quality, coupled with its one-of-a-kind size and location in space, it should be able to find and image hundreds of star systems for candidate exoplanets with the potential for life on them: all the stars within about 100 light years. With the spectra it will obtain, LUVOIR can do what no other current or planned observatory will be able to: search for molecular biosignatures around hundreds of Earth-sized, potentially habitable worlds. For the first time, it could give us evidence of life beyond our own solar system.

Stars — When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, it opened up a fascinating possibility to observational astronomers: the capability of measuring the properties of individual stars in the Andromeda galaxy, more than 2 million light years away. With LUVOIR, we’ll be able to make those same measurements for every galaxy within about 300 million light years! For the first time, we’ll be able to measure stars in every type of galaxy in the Universe, from dwarfs to spirals to giant ellipticals to the rare ring galaxy to galaxies in the active process of merging. This cosmic census would be impossible without a large, optical space telescope like this.

Galaxies — Hubble, quite remarkably, has been able to find galaxies from when the Universe was only 400 million years old: just 3% of its current age. But galaxies this distant are rare, since Hubble can only see the brightest ones among them, and even at that, the ones that are aided by having gravitational lenses in the foreground. By contrast, LUVOIR will be able to see every galaxy, including the faint ones, the dwarf ones, the tiny building blocks of modern galaxies, and the ones that don’t have gravitational lenses or serendipitous alignments at all. We will finally be able to learn about the full population of galaxies in the Universe, and to measure them to resolutions of just 300–400 light years per pixel, no matter how distant they are in the Universe.

Intergalactic gas — Today, we can take a “pencil beam” of a galaxy, measuring the halo of gas surrounding a galaxy and serving as its fuel tank and recycling center. We can measure the absorption features of this gas, and compare it with the best 3D simulations our theory and technology can offer. But with LUVOIR, we can directly image dozens or even hundreds of “pencil beams” per galaxy, measuring and mapping out the circumgalactic medium for any galaxy at all. We can even, in some cases, directly image the emission properties of the excited gas, allowing us to directly compare our observations with the simulations, without having to do the interpolation necessary in absorption alone.

Dark matter — This invisible, transparent mass is responsible for the majority of gravitation in the Universe, yet we can only map it out from its effects on visible matter. In the past, this has meant looking at bulk properties of large areas of distant galaxies, with the Milky Way, from our vantage point within it, being one of the most difficult galaxies to map. LUVOIR will change all of that, allowing us to measure the rotation properties of galaxies more distant than ever before, testing whether and how the dark matter profile of galaxies has evolved over billions of years. We’ll be able to test models of dark matter explicitly, by measuring the proper motions of Milky Way stars to never-before-achieved precision, and by analyzing the smallest building blocks of galaxies that are currently beyond even the world’s most powerful telescopes.

There’s no substitute for being in space no matter how good adaptive optics get, you’ll never be able to overcome 100% of the atmosphere’s effects. This is particularly true in the ultraviolet, and at many infrared wavelengths, which can really be only imaged accurately from space, due to atmospheric absorption at those wavelengths. There’s also no substitute for size, which determines both the maximum resolution you can achieve and the amount of light-gathering power you have. Across the board, LUVOIR will be capable of better than six times the resolution of Hubble and of taking images to the same depth approximately 40 times faster. What LUVOIR could see with nine days of continuous observations would take Hubble an entire year, and still Hubble would only have 16% as good resolution.

As good as JUNO’s images are of Jupiter, LUVOIR will be able to get those images from its vantage point in orbit near Earth, rather than having to fly a spacecraft to a distant planet. When it comes to measuring the ultraviolet light from a source, LUVOIR will use a microshutter array on its spectroscopic instrument, allowing it to image many objects simultaneously, rather than just a single object at a time like today’s telescopes. And just like Hubble works with today’s largest ground-based observatories, LUVOIR will work with the current generation of under-construction 30-meter-class observatories, like GMT and ELT, to discover and follow-up on the faintest, most distant objects that humanity will ever know. While James Webb will be NASA’s flagship astrophysics mission of the 2010s and WFIRST will fly in the 2020s, LUVOIR could come to be as early as the 2030s, depending on how the upcoming decadal survey goes.

But these potential discoveries are what we know we’re going to be looking for. With every new major technological leap forward we’ve ever taken in astronomy and astrophysics, the greatest achievements of all have been the ones we could not have anticipated in advance. The great unknowns of the Universe, including what it looks like in the faintest regimes, how the most distant stars, galaxies, gas clouds, and the intergalactic medium behaved at early times, and what it looks like beyond anything we’ve ever seen will all be exposed for the first time. It’s possible that we’ll learn we were quite arrogant and wrongheaded in a great multitude of arenas, but we’ll need this new, high-quality data to show us the way.

In order for LUVOIR to work, we’ll need to use the largest, heaviest-design launch vehicle capable: NASA’s Space Launch System. We’ll need the segmented mirrors to achieve picometer-level stability more than 10 times better than the stability we achieve today. To perform the exoplanet imaging, we’ll need a coronagraph that can pick out 1-part-in-10,000,000,000, a huge improvement over today’s best systems. The mirror and mirror-coating systems will demand improved technology over today’s best. And most ambitiously, we’ll need the capability to service this telescope at the L2 Lagrange point: 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth, which is four times as far as the most distant human has ever flown from our world. And as far as why we need this, I think John said it best in his own words:

I believe very strongly that LUVOIR is a critical part of our next great era in science when we definitively advance not just the search for life, but the telling of its story over cosmological time. LUVOIR can give us the tools to answer many of our most fundamental questions as human beings trying to understand their place in the universe. If that isn’t worth it, what is?

The legacy of of the Spitzer Space Telescope

The Spitzer Space Telescope made many important discoveries in the solar system during its 16 year-long mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To understand the significance of the Spitzer Space Telescope on the understanding of our solar system, think of what the steam engine meant for the industrial revolution.

A national team of scientists today published in the journal Nature Astronomy two papers that provide an inventory of the major discoveries made possible thanks to Spitzer and offer guidance on where the next generation of explorers should point the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) when it launches in October 2021.

"The Spitzer Space Telescope made many important discoveries in the solar system during its 16 year-long mission, and it is important to capture the highlights of these with useful references for future scientists to use in their research," says Carey M. Lisse, from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, lead author of one paper.

Lisse, a planetary astronomer, put together the team of 27 authors who penned the legacy papers. The authors were selected based on the significant discoveries they made using Spitzer during its 16-year mission. The team includes three University of Central Florida researchers, who offer suggestions for the next space telescope mission.

David Trilling, a planetary scientist and professor at Northern Arizona University, is the lead author on the second paper.

When Spitzer launched in 2003, it contained infrared detectors of unprecedented sensitivity, providing astronomers a never-before-possible look at the universe. Thanks to observations by Spitzer over the years, scientists gained new insights into, for example, the composition of comets, the icy surfaces of cold, distant bodies beyond Neptune, the heat radiation given off by asteroids, the extent of free-floating dust in the inner solar system, and the composition and properties of the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. Spitzer even managed to discover a new ring of Saturn. The much-delayed JWST, which will likewise study the infrared cosmos, is expected to build on the extensive results provided by Spitzer, including taking the next step in our study of the solar system.

UCF Professor Yan Fernandez, who specializes in comets, said the papers include some of the projects he is most proud off in his career. Fernandez is a co-author on both papers.

"I think these papers demonstrate the return on investment for Spitzer," Fernandez said. "These space telescopes are taxpayer-funded, after all. More philosophically, Spitzer has brought us closer to those big questions about why the solar system and Earth are here in the first place. Spitzer was not only great for the solar system, but it was great for studying exoplanets, great for studying planet formation, and great for studying star formation. All important to understand why our solar system turned out the way it did."

Noemí Pinilla-Alonso said astronomy is based on patience and collaboration. She studies Trans-Neptunian Objects at UCF's Florida Space Institute and contributed to the paper alongside institute post-doctoral scholar Estela Fernández-Valenzuela. Pinilla-Alonso is among a handful of scientists already guaranteed time on JWST once it is place. She is part of the team that will be calibrating the instrument from the ground.

"Answering one question takes the effort of multiple scientists or groups, each of them with a unique set of skills," Pinilla-Alonso says. "My contribution to this work is to provide the basic recipe of which ingredients are needed to build or cook an icy body in the solar system. And this is a key piece of information that is needed to answer questions such as how did the solar system form? How has it evolved to its actual state? How similar or different is our solar system from the long list, more than 3,000, of exoplanetary systems discovered?"

Fernandez-Valenzuela also studies Trans-Neptunian Objects and earlier this year held workshops to help scientists prepare successful proposals to obtain time on the JWST once NASA opens up the process.

"This work has helped us to understand what we could do with Spitzer data and how to use the JWST capabilities to shed light on issues that Spitzer could not answer," Fernández-Valenzuela says.

"Using Spitzer we have been able to detect specific materials that were impossible to detect from ground-based telescopes, due to the atmosphere, or using the Hubble Space Telescope," Fernández-Valenzuela says. "Now with JWST we will be able to obtain information on much fainter objects than is currently possible. I'm eager for that day as it will be a very important milestone for this research area. It will provide much more information on the formation of the outer solar system."

Spitzer was turned off in January 2020, 11 years beyond its prime mission.

"Spitzer was sensitive to infrared radiation, as opposed to visible light," Trilling says. "In many ways, Spitzer provided a view of the universe and of planetary bodies in our solar system that scientists had never seen before. This technological revolution produced new insights into the formation and evolution of our solar system."

David E. Trilling et al. Spitzer's Solar System studies of asteroids, planets and the zodiacal cloud, Nature Astronomy (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-020-01221-y

Space telescope located in outer solar system - Astronomy

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