space telescope astronomy

Credits: NASA

What Future holds for Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Space Science

Astronomy and related fields like Astrophysics and Space Sciences have been at the pole position of science and technology from the beginning of a new era. In today’s world, where hunger and poverty are the immediate problems, Astronomical Sciences are equally important to a civilized society. The pursuit of exploring the universe must be justified by the answers with fundamental research. The research in these sciences is not as easy as it seems in other natural sciences.

Though all these sciences are breaking records with each day passed, from establishing the distances for discovering new planets. It is hard to investigate and analyze the facts about the universe. The use of cutting-edge technology and longer time scale methods through their extensive application have appeared as game-changer in Astronomy. Dave Finley, the public information officer at National Radio Astronomy Observatory Socorro, New Mexico, well summarized the future aspects of astronomical sciences in defense of radio astronomy as:

“Astronomy offers mankind a fundamental sense of earth in an unimaginably vast and exciting universe. Though it has been a foundation stone of technological progress all through history, it has much to contribute in the future”.

Astronomy

Astronomy involves the study of stars and other heavenly bodies. According to NASA, it is the study of planets, stars, and space. It is an umbrella under which many terms are used with little differences such as Astrophysics. Astronomy not only involves the medical and technological applications but also contributes to the discovery of the universe to extend our horizons. From predicting the threats to our planet, and potential space to prolonging the survival of our species, all these discoveries are miracles of astronomy.

Current Scenario and Need for Innovations in Astronomy

Astronomy involves examining the space and celestial objects through powerful telescopes. Through these telescopes, Astronomers observe and reveal the secrets of the Universe. They also capture different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum of the light coming from distant stars and galaxies.

Till now, there has been a substantial technical advancement to capture more light from the skies, and see deeper in the universe through huge and highly advanced telescopes. Still, there is a need for innovations for bigger and better telescopes through collaboration across nations worldwide.

Major Innovations Across the Globe

Land-Based Telescopes

Extremely Large Telescope – the ELT

Currently, this telescope is under construction. By the end of 2020, it will be fully functional. It will be the world’s largest and most powerful visible and infrared light telescope having size twice the length of the cricket pitch. The technicians and engineers all around the world are building it under ESO (European Southern Observatory) in Northern Chile. This teamwork allows ELT to deliver cutting-edge science. Once it is completely designed and constructed, it will be able to observe the formation of distant galaxies and portray the planets around stars very precisely.

This artistic bird’s-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) Credit: ESO
European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure. Soon, it will be the world’s largest “eye on the sky.” (Image: © ESO/L. Calçada)
SKA – The Square Kilometer Array

The world’s largest radio telescopes will be operated at the end of 2020. It consists of hundreds of radio telescopes, dishes, and thousands of antennas across two continents of South Africa and Western Australia. It is constructed in phases with phase 1 completed providing 200 dishes in South Africa and 130,000 Antennas in Australia.

This largest Radio telescope will allow us to study invisible celestial objects in space that emit radio waves, which would otherwise be not possible. The astronomers will be able to study the cold universe at its earliest stages through this largest telescope. This telescope is an international effort comprising 1000 scientists and engineers from 20 countries under IGA (Intergovernmental organization).

SKA dishes on the South African SKA site.
Square Kilometre Array at night. SKA Organization

Space-Based Telescope

JWST – the James Webb Space Telescope

The “James Webb Space Telescope” will be the first world largest space telescope ever built. It will be able to get a clearer view of distant galaxies, stars, and the planet as its light will not be distorted by the earth’s atmosphere. Its main sun shield is about twice the size of a tennis court. It is an infrared specialist that allows astronomers to explore the universe and see the evolution of planets, stars, and galaxies. It is because infrared is invisible to our eyes but this space telescope help astronomers to look closely at the distant stars and galaxies through murky clouds.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. In future, it will investigate our solar system. Credits: Northrup Grumman
NASA engineers and technicians inspect one of the James Webb Space Telescope’s mirror segments. Credit: Chris Gunn / NASA GSFC
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has played a pivotal role in developing the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

The James Webb telescope is constructed by scientists, technicians, and engineers from 14 different countries in partnership with NASA. It is supposed to be operational in early 2020 but NASA has delayed its launch date till 31st October 2021. It will orbit in deep space 1.5 km away from earth, for at least a five-year mission. The main mirror of the JWST sunshield is coated with gold to reflect the infrared light efficiently.

These are just the three examples in which scientists and engineers from all over the world work in collaboration to truly push the frontiers of astronomy and space sciences. These innovations will provide a breakthrough in the future and no doubt it will indirectly increase the sustainability of the earth.

Astrophysics

Astrophysics is the branch of space science that involves the study of physical laws that explain the origin of stars, planets, and other objects in the universe. NASA describes astrophysics as a goal to observe and explore the universe and its evolution for the search of the existence of life on other planets. Astrophysics allows scientists to deduce theories for explaining the mechanism of radiation emitted by universe objects and extract important information in it. NASA focuses on the Physics of the cosmos, cosmic origins, exoplanet exploration, astrophysics explorer programs, and research in the field of astrophysics.

Current Scenario and Need for Innovations in Astrophysics

For Astrophysical research, NASA focuses on operational great observational tools that comprise Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Other observational missions are Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, NuSTAR, and TESS missions. Some complementary missions are in the process such as NICER and SOFIA. NASA also funded the development of astrophysics instruments for the observations and data analysis for their missions.

Most of the mission mentioned have achieved their initial goals, but they are prolonged to produce breathtaking results. All of these missions will work together for much of the human piled knowledge of the universe, and use this knowledge for humanity to touch new horizons. NASA also collaborates with international space platforms across the globe for astrophysics instrumentation development such as ESA’s XMM-Newton.

Despite the above currently operated missions, there is still a need for innovations in the field of Astrophysics. For example, the nature of dark matter can only be understood by a model of the microstructure of space. Astrophysicists assume that it involves a great phenomenon of physics called “Planck Length”. It is the greatest challenge to the present universe.

Future of Astrophysics

NASA proposed four future missions under Astrophysics space divisions to the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Once they get approved, NASA will start working on it. Each of these missions comprises

a space telescope primarily designed to study stars, galaxies, black holes, alien planets, and objects within Earth’s solar system. Only one of these four missions will be selected till mid-2030. Once the mission gets selected, the cost can rise above 1 billion dollars.

Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor – LUVOIR

This candidate mission will be the larger and more sophisticated version of the Hubble Space Telescope to observe the universe in ultraviolet, infrared, and visible wavelengths of light. The space telescope will be designed in two different sizes such as larger and smaller depending on budget.

LUVOIR- observatory concept
LUVOIR 16-meter size telescope Credit NASA.

It will help astrophysicists to deal with various future astronomical research projects like the study of habitable exoplanets; study of formation and evolution of stars and galaxies; mapping of dark matter all around the universe; and imaging objects in the solar system, like planets, comets, and asteroids.

Habitable Exoplanet Observatory – HabEx

As the name indicates, this space telescope will observe the potentially habitable exoplanets around sun-like stars.

Representation of the Telescope Concept

If it is approved, it will become the first telescope to trace biosignatures like water and methane and image the Earth-like exoplanets where life will be possible. Habex would also be able to observe and map stars and galaxies, study the expansion of the universe, and investigate the dark matter by conducting ultraviolet and infrared observations.

Lynx X-Ray Observatory

The space telescope would be the upgraded form of Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Lynx would be powerful enough to reveal the invisible universe through very high energy X-ray radiations. The birth and death of stars, the perfect maps of exploding stars, the invisible supernovas, and black holes would only be seen because of Lynx.

Space telescope would be the upgraded form of Chandra X-Ray Observatory
A closer look of Lynx X-Ray Observatory concept
Origins Space Telescope

The next-generation version of the Herschel Space Observatory, the Origins Space Telescope would solve the mysteries of life in-universe. The questions like how habitable planets are formed will be easily get answered by this infrared surveyor telescope. It will be consisting of a cryocooler cooling system that would increase its sensitivity to about 1000 times. It will involve in keeping the track of the earliest stages of stars and other planets to check the ingredients of life.

Concept of Origin space Telescope
14Model of Origin Space Telescope
Model of Origin Space Telescope

All of these future astrophysics’ missions have their importance. They will readily revolutionize the concept of life in the universe.

Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – LIGO

The world’s largest gravitational wave observatory is not like a traditional telescope. It does not work by using light. Instead of light, it uses the ripples in space-time called gravitational waves. These waves are produced by big events that affect space-time such as mergers of pairs of neutron stars, black holes, and supernovae.

An aerial view of the Virgo interferometer near Pisa, Italy. Credit: The Virgo collaboration/CCO 1.0
An aerial view of the Virgo interferometer near Pisa, Italy. Credit: The Virgo collaboration/CCO 1.0
An upgrade to the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory

It is an outstanding physics experiment on the scale and complexity of some of the world’s giant particle accelerators and nuclear physics laboratories. It consists of two enormous laser interferometers located 3000 kilometers apart, and two widely separated detectors in Washington State and Louisiana, USA.

It is aided by the Virgo detector in Italy and the GEO 600 instrument in Germany. Since LIGO is upgrading in series form, which is supported by 92 collaborating institutions, it is still expanding with a third detector site being established in India.

LIGO and Virgo operate together as a collaboration and will soon be joined by the KAGRA detector in Japan. The Collaborative operation allows examination of gravitational waves simultaneously produced by the same event to determine what is the origin and nature of signals. This collaboration addition of telescopes is introducing a whole new exciting field within multi-messenger astronomy.

By working in collaboration, these telescopes not only drive ahead in astronomical exploration but also the data obtained from the experiment will be used to improve our lives on earth in the future.

Gaia

Gaia is a telescope designed to make the largest 3D map of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Its mission is to provide unprecedented positional and radial velocity measurements with the accuracies needed to produce a stereoscopic and kinematic census of about one billion stars in our Galaxy.

It will observe each star 70 times in planned 5 years. It is not only able to observe stars, but it is also able to detect a large no. of asteroids and comets, along with potential exoplanets and supernova explosions.

The Gaia Telescope. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Space Science

Space Science is the study of space exploration. Many interdisciplinary fields come under this term, for example, Stellar, Solar, Galactic and Extragalactic Astronomy, Planetary Science and Physical Cosmology, Astrobiology, Astrochemistry, Astrophysics, Space Plasma Physics, Orbital Mechanics/ Astrodynamics, Atmospheric/ Environmental Science, Satellite and Space Communications, Space Systems, Space Environment, and Space Medicine. Space science subjects are rapidly growing at present. But the main subjects which come significantly under space sciences are Remote Sensing, Satellite Applications, Astrophysics, Astrodynamics, Atmospheric Science. It involves the usage of highly advanced space technology to analyze and interpret space information for a better understanding of Earth and its systems in the cosmos.

Space science has emphasized the improvement of life quality on earth by designing space satellites to study the space environment and test satellites their capabilities. This leads to the development of telecommunication satellites, global positioning, and advancement in weather forecasting.

Current Scenario and Need for Innovations in Space Science

Space exploration has delivered a lot of innovations in technology in diverse aspects of everyday life; starting from solar panels to implantable heart monitors, from cancer therapy to light‐weight materials, and from water‐purification systems to improved computing systems and a global search‐and‐rescue system. It has proposed new perspectives for every individual on earth. It has sparked new scientific and technological knowledge to mankind. Ultimately, it has initiated the development of the space economy.

Future of Space Science

The future space exploration goals involve sending humans and robots beyond Earth orbit and establish sustained access to places like Moon, Mars, and asteroids in the universe. The complementary capabilities of humans and robots will immediately benefit back to earth in areas of materials, power generation and energy, storage, recycling and waste management, advanced robotics, health and medicine, transportation, engineering, computing, and software.

Space science proposes a unique and evolving perspective to fulfill people’s curiosity by providing fresh data about the solar system. Therefore, international collaborations and partnerships are required not only to prevent Earth from catastrophic events but also to address global challenges.

The precise nature of future benefits from space science and its exploration is unpredictable. But the latest trends suggest that considerable benefits would be generated in significant areas of life.

Conclusion

The developed nations have a quite stronghold on astronomy and space science projects in the present and future. These countries have been collaborating with international space platforms like NASA for many years. It is saddening that most of the developing countries could not focus on astronomy and other projects because they are struggling with their basic issues. Now countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Taiwan, where basic technological and industrial basis exists, have started taking an active part to build space crafts and satellites. These nations have also collaborated with the UN and NASA and other countries like Denmark, France, Italy, and China for various future projects. Arab and other Muslim countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Libya, and UAE have also taken initiative to build Gulf observatory, joint observatory, and UAE center for Astronomy and Space Sciences. India is also going ahead in Astronomy research with the help of ground-based, balloon-borne, and satellite facilities.

The last decade is considered the “Golden Age” for Astronomy and Science with unique and great opportunities for earth people. The availability of existing and future datasets from space by ground-based or space-based observatories has given a global opportunity to make mind-blowing advancements in astronomy, astrophysics, and space science. Only a few space projects can be planned in astronomical sciences near future due to the size, complexity, and budget issues. These surmountable challenges can be tackled by multi-lateral cooperation and international collaboration.

The cooperative global action is the only solution to ensure a positive perspective in future space research. So, the negative trend can be corrected, and the “Dark Age” of Astronomy can be avoided.

References

https://stfc.ukri.org/news-events-and-publications/features/the-future-of-astronomy-three-big-reasons-to-be-excited/

https://www.space.com/16014-astronomy.html

https://www.space.com/26218-astrophysics.html

https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics

https://www.aps.org/units/fip/newsletters/201410/india.cfm

https://www.ist.edu.pk/ss

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