The Hubble Telescope’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, doesn’t actually launch until 2018 — but astronomers are already looking ahead to the next big project that could finally open up the cosmos for our corner of the solar system.
Representatives from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) hope the eventual successor to the James Webb telescope can finally be the one to reach a point of deep-space clarity that will allow us to potentially find alien life on habitable planets. Sure, we’re still at least 15 years away from that next telescope, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
As Gizmodo notes, something that would actually have the power to see the building blocks of the universe, and get a close-up peek at alien worlds, would be about 10 times as powerful as Hubble, and a good bit more powerful than James Webb. To put that in perspective: James Webb has a 21-foot primary mirror, and astronomers want the next telescope to potentially reach the 40-foot range. Considering it's costing approximately $8.7 billion to get James Webb set up, this mythical Uber-Telescope is not going to be cheap. But, hey, the mysteries of the universe don’t come without a price, right?
“The road to [discovering] living worlds requires an eight to 12 meter space-based telescope,” said Natalie Batalha, an astronomer who studies exoplanets at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “This is what can consistently survey Sun-like stars within 30 parsecs.”
By getting a telescope that big into orbit, astronomers believe they’d finally be able to see the smaller planets that could potentially be habitable — instead of (basically) using context clues to figure them out, as they do now. Once James Webb is operational, astronomers say the experience learned from that project should give us much of the know-how that will be needed for the next one.
(above image credit: The James Webb Space Telescope mirror)