The Future of NASA Space Telescopes – What to Look for in the Next Generation

SETI Talks

Tags: SETI Talks, Outreach, Exoplanets, Astrobiology

Time: Wednesday, Feb 13, 2019 -

Location: SRI International, 333 Ravenswood Ave, Menlo Park, CA 94025

What should we expect from the next generation of space telescopes? What key scientific questions will they help answer? Do we have the technology we need to operate them in 20-30 years?

To address these issues, NASA selected four large space mission concepts to study and consider as possible future Large Strategic Science Missions.  Of the NASA astrophysics division missions, these tend to be the most expensive, but also have the greatest capacity.

Three of those space telescopes got the attention of the SETI Institute because of their potential to answer the question, “Are We Alone?”

  • The Origins Space Telescope (Origins) is a large cooled infrared space telescope with higher sensitivity and better angular resolution than any prior observatory accessing similar wavelengths. Among its many science objectives covering the first stars to life, Origins  could help scientists understand the abundance and availability of water for habitable planets and could look forbiosignatures on potentially habitable worlds transiting low-mass stars.
  • The Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor (or LUVOIR) is a general-purpose observatory; its key science goal is to characterize a wide range of exoplanets, including those that might be habitable and orbiting a range of stellar types.
  • The Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission (HabEx) is a space telescope, optimized to search for and image Earth-sized exoplanets in the habitable zones around sun-like stars, where liquid water might exist. HabEx would also have a suite of general astrophysics science capabilities.

Each of these concepts has pros and cons, as well as other technological, cost, and risk challenges. These mission concepts will be described in detail in their final study reports, which will be delivered to the National Academy of Sciences for the Astro 2020 Decadal Survey later this year.  It is still unknown whether the Decadal Survey will prioritize none, one, or even all of these concepts, but the several hundred scientists and engineers involved in these mission concept studies for the past three years are confident that we are now capable of building these telescopes, and that the science that they can deliver will be compelling and change again our view of the cosmos, just as the Hubble Space Telescope has done for the past 3 decades.

We invited three scientists directly involved in each one of the three teams above to discuss these exciting future mission projects. During this SETI Talk, they will describe their projects, and tell us more about the challenges and the processes that could make these missions a reality:

  • Prof. Courtney Dressing, astronomer and member of the LUVOIR Science and Technology Definition Team (STDT), whose research aims to detect and characterize planetary systems orbiting nearby stars.
  • Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith, a NASA research astrophysicist who is multidisciplinary in her approach to space instruments, telescopes, and mission concepts. She is a member of the STDT of OST.
  • Prof. Scott Gaudi,  astronomer and community chair of the HabEx STDT, who bridges the gap between theory and observations, with extensive experience in leadership roles and consensus-building, as well as experience with several exoplanet detection methods and exoplanet surveys. 
Courtney Dressing

Courtney Dressing is an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. As an observational astronomer, she has focused her research on detecting and characterizing planetary systems orbiting nearby stars. She has used telescopes on the ground and in space to search for planets, probe their atmospheres, measure their masses, and constrain their bulk compositions. Courtney is curious about how planets form and evolve with time, the frequency of planetary systems in the Galaxy, and the prospects for detecting life on planets outside of our Solar System.

Kimberly Ennico Smith

Dr. Kimberly Ennico Smith is a NASA research astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. She is multidisciplinary in her approach to space instruments, telescopes,  and  mission concepts. She has designed and built infrared airborne and space telescope cameras and  spectrometers,  tested detectors in laboratories and particle accelerators, designed low-cost suborbital instruments, built lunar payloads, and, most recently, served as deputy Project Scientist leading the calibration of the New Horizons Pluto fly-by mission and Project Scientist for the flying infrared observatory SOFIA.

Scott Gaudi

Professor Scott Gaudi is a leader in the discovery and statistical characterization of extrasolar planets using a variety of methods, including transits and gravitational microlensing. In 2008, he and his collaborators announced the discovery of the first Jupiter/Saturn analog. Prof. Gaudi is deeply immersed in analytic and numerical techniques for assessing the yield, biases, and discovery potential of current and next-generation surveys to determine the demographics of exoplanets. More broadly, his interests revolve around the information content of large datasets. Scott is a member of the Science Definition Team for NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST ) and is the chair-elect for the NASA Exoplanet Exploration Analysis Group. Widely recognized within the community for his work, he was the 2009 recipient of the Helen B. Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society, received NSF CAREER and PECASE awards, was named a University Distinguished Scholar in 2016, and in 2017 he was awarded the NASA Outstanding Public Leadership Medal in recognition of his "outstanding leadership as the ExoPlanet Program Analysis Group Chairperson having significant impact on NASA's search for exoplanets and life in the universe."