Using spectroscopy, which studies how matter and light interact, astronomers will now begin to study the atmospheres of large hot worlds for biosignatures or signs of life on other planets.
The second new priority announced in the report: the quest to understand what happened in the earliest moments of the existence of our universe, by examining the nature of black holes, white dwarfs and stellar explosions. Through projects such as launching a space antenna with a laser interferometer, a proposed space probe that will detect and measure gravitational waves, research in this area could help scientists discover new physics and improve our understanding of astronomical measurements.
The third priority will try to tackle the origins and evolution of galaxies and determine how these astronomical systems are interconnected. In particular, the researchers want to use spectroscopy to study the diverse structures that make up the environment around galaxies.
A new way to plan missions
The committee’s report also says NASA must create a new program to change the way projects are planned and developed.
“Rather than recommending and approving missions that will take so many years,” Gonzalez says, “we recommend that NASA establish a line we call the Great Observatory Missions and Technology Development Program that designs and develops technologies for missions before they will be completed. approved.”
Under this program, technologies will be developed many years before they are slated for any space mission and will provide early validation and reviews along the way. Usually this process begins when a mission is recommended, but this program aims to halve the time between recommendation and launch.
The report suggests that given how much time and money it takes to develop a mission concept, the new approach could help increase the number of large-scale projects that NASA could work on concurrently. According to Gonzalez, there is no question of whether they will fly or not. It is about having the necessary resources and support as early as possible.
The first mission to be part of the new program will be a space telescope that will use high-contrast images to generate new exoplanet data in line with Astro2020’s top priorities. It is significantly larger than the Hubble Space Telescope and will be able to observe planets that are at least 10 billion times fainter than their stars. This will fundamentally change the way astronomers view the known universe.
Today, the project has an estimated cost of about $ 11 billion and, if approved by NASA, a potential launch is scheduled no earlier than the early 2040s.
On the ground
For ground-based observatories, the committee’s top recommendation is to continue investing in the US Ultra-Large Telescope Program, which currently consists of three elements: the giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, the Thirty-Meter Telescope in Hawaii, and the National Science Foundation. National Research Laboratory for Optical Infrared Astronomy in Arizona.
Astro2020 also recommends replacing the Very Large Karl Jansky Array and the Very Long Baseline Array with Very large next generation array, a much more sensitive radio observatory to be built by the end of the decade.
The report says that the success of each of these projects is essential if the United States hopes to maintain its position as a leader in terrestrial astronomy.
Gonzalez hopes this year’s report will lead to new discoveries beyond the scientific community. “It’s not just a community of astronomers,” she says. “Astronomy benefits astronomers and humans.”