Wanted: Hubble 2.0, aliens
The Hubble telescope has made some of astronomy's most revolutionary discoveries over its 25-year pilgrimage through the outer limits of the universe as we know it. However, with no future service missions planned and the inevitable deterioration of technology, the pioneering explorer will soon be entering retirement and, in about ten years, ultimately face its fiery demise.
In light of this, a team of scientists led by Nobel laureate astrophysicist John Mather have initiated a report outlining the needs for a high-definition (HDST) successor to the Hubble that will be able continue one of its most important missions: the search for life on other Earth-like planets.
The inquiry into a suitable replacement comes as Mather leads another project that is currently building NASA’s next cosmic observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope. The Webb will exceed the Hubble's capabilities in a number of ways, with highly-sensitive infrared "eyes" and the power to perform at cryogenic temperatures promising deeper space exploration than ever before.
Mather argues however that Webb's technology will not sufficiently supplant the Hubble's capacity to identify traits that help determine whether a planet is suitable for extraterrestrial life. "That quest and others require an even bigger space telescope that would observe, as Hubble does, at optical, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths," writes Scientific American reporter and H&F contributing expert Lee Billings. This, in addition to bigger mirrors and starlight-blocking technology that can help astronomers distinguish planets that are possibly obscured by neighboring stars, is what Mather will recommend for a true Hubble successor when the report is released this summer.
The report is just the beginning of what will certainly be a long and arduous process, beginning with the task of convincing the government, investors, and the public at large that such a task is a worthwhile venture; with a multibillion-dollar pricetag and a timeline that may exceed the lifetimes of some of those who choose work on the project should it be funded, Mather and his team have their work cut out for them.