Why NASA Needs A Webb 2.0 Sooner Rather Than Later

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NASA needs to strike while the iron is hot; take a hard-learned lesson from the Apollo program and push forward with a Webb 2.0 —- an even more ambitious space-based optical observatory. Now, when both the public and the politicians are taking note is the time to move and secure NASA’s next legacy project.

At present, NASA’s next scheduled flagship space observatory will be the 2.4-meter Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (Roman) due for launch around the middle of 2027.

Roman has a field of view 100 times the area of Hubble or Webb and can survey large areas of the sky to Hubble-like depths, Jonathan Gardner, Webb’s deputy senior project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told me. With Roman, Webb and Hubble all working at once, Roman will discover objects that Webb, in the infrared, and Hubble, in the optical and ultraviolet (UV), can study in more detail, he says.

After the Roman telescope, the National Academy of Science’s 2020 Decadal Survey recommended a UV-optical-near infrared space telescope comparable in size to Webb, but optimized for studying exoplanets, says Gardner. It’s about the same size as Webb but could study exoplanets in ways beyond what Webb can do, he says.

The biggest driver for a Webb 2.0 is direct imaging of exoplanets, especially imaging of earth-like planets in the so-called habitable goldilocks zones around near-by stars, Asantha Cooray, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California in Irvine, who is head of a study group for a possible Webb successor, told me.

But how quickly we can get started on that mission may depend on when the design phase is funded by Congress, says Gardner.

Given Webb’s initial success, Congress is probably not in a hurry to fund a new major telescope project, says Cooray.

But given the fact that it takes at least two decades to develop one of these large $10 billion dollar-class missions, NASA can’t wait too long if it wants to a true Webb 2.0 in space by the mid-2040s.

A six-meter Webb 2.0 probably will probably cost about over $12 billion, says Cooray. It won’t be bigger than the current Webb, he says. But it will be sensitive to the ultraviolet spectrum in ways that have heretofore eluded astronomers, says Cooray.

Even so, now is the time to do the heavy-lifting in the name of space-based astronomy. Answering questions about the nature of our universe and how we evolved is ours for the taking. We live in an era where at least some of these fundamental questions can be answered.

Arguably, the four biggest questions in all of astronomy entail:

—- Is it possible to detect space or time before the big bang?

—- What caused the cosmic chain of events which we are now here to question?

—- What’s the nature of the dark matter and dark energy that make up 95 percent of the observable universe?

—- Is there other intelligent life in the cosmos?

I imagine that the first two questions will be answered when we have definitive evidence for a multiverse.

As for dark matter?

I suspect this mystery will be solved using some sort of modified Newtonian physics.

As for dark energy?

My best guess is that it will be redefined or at least incorporated into a new way of thinking about the cosmic metric of universal expansion.

And as for other intelligent life in the cosmos?

On a per capita basis, I think it’s going to be surprisingly rare. But given the sheer numbers of possible earthlike planets in every nook and cranny of the cosmos, extraterrestrial intelligent life is still going to be as plentiful as rattlesnakes in a stand of South Georgia pines.

To answer these questions, however, we need to reinvigorate our space astronomy programs with the kind of vigor that defined Apollo six decades ago.

Despite what many believe, the night sky and questions about our existence permeate the populace in ways that would shock academia. This existential background hum accompanies us all in subtle ways.

But astronomical science offers humanity a way to make sense of the universe and our place within it. It’s time that we fully embraced these possibilities and immediately begin work on the next big project.

In just over two hours per filter (per color), Webb got deeper in the infrared than the longest Hubble exposure, which was many days of data, says Gardner. “All of the first images were done in just 5 days total,” he said.

Even so, Webb has had an early unforeseen hiccup. Tiny micrometeoroids were always expected to strike the six-meter telescope’s magnificent, segmented mirrors at a rate of about one per month. But one struck the telescope in May that was bigger than expected.

If we just got unlucky, then there aren’t a lot more of those bigger hits coming, and everything will be fine, says Gardner. If we got the models wrong, and these bigger hits are more common than we expected, then there could be more degradation over time than we expected, he says.

Yet thanks to the perfect orbital insertion by Europe’s Arianespace launcher, Webb was able to save lots of extra fuel for station-keeping, says Cooray. So, its mission will be able to operate for at least twenty years, he says.

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