From strategic points, on Earth and in space, the next telescopes will depend on next-generation technologies in their attempts to answer some of the most important questions of scientists about dark matter, the expansion of the universe and extraterrestrial life.
Some will provide 100 times more information than today’s most powerful tools for observing the heavens.
The first of these telescopes, the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope from NASA , will be released in 2021, and then start scanning the atmospheres of distant worlds for clues about extraterrestrial life. Already in 2022, other new telescopes in space will take unprecedented observations of the heavens, while observatories on Earth look back to the ancient universe.
This is what is in process and what these new tools could reveal.
Since its launch in 1990, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered new planets, revealed strange galaxies and provided new insights into the nature of black holes.
It also found that the universe is expanding faster than scientists imagined.
However, many questions remain to be answered. How has the universe evolved over time? Why can’t we see 95% of it? If there are aliens, where are they?
The next generation of telescopes – in space and on land – will try to fill these gaps in our knowledge.
First, NASA is building the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to observe the history of the universe.
It will study how the first stars and galaxies formed, how planets are born and where there could be life in the universe.
The next telescope is fully assembled and now faces a long testing process at the Northrop Grumman facility in California before its launch on March 30, 2021.
A 21-foot-wide beryllium mirror will help the James Webb telescope observe distant galaxies in detail and capture extremely weak signals within our own galaxy.
The farther you look into space, the more the telescope will look back in time, so it could even detect the first flashes of the Big Bang.
JWST will also observe in detail young and distant galaxies that we have never seen before.
Thanks to the new infrared technology, the telescope was able to provide an unprecedented view of the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way.
These images could help answer questions about how the galaxy formed and its black hole.
“Do the black hole comes first and stars form around it? Do the stars come together and collide to form the black hole? These are questions we want to answer, ”said Jay Anderson, a JWST scientist, in an October press release.
JWST will also look for signs of alien life in the atmospheres of exoplanets (the term for planets outside our solar system) – but only those larger than Earth.
By measuring the intensity of the light from the stars that crosses the atmosphere of a planet, the telescope could calculate the composition of that atmosphere.
Scientists have already identified more than 4,000 exoplanets.
But so far, they have not been able to study most of the atmospheres of these planets to look for signs of life, also known as “biosignatures.”
If an exoplanet’s atmosphere contains methane and carbon dioxide, for example, those are clues that there could be life there. JWST will look for signals like that.
Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of oxygen because life has been producing it for billions of years. Oxygen is not stable enough to last a long time on its own, so it must be constantly produced to make it so abundant.
The combination of carbon dioxide and methane (as in Earth’s atmosphere) is even more revealing, especially if there is no carbon monoxide.
This is because carbon dioxide and methane would normally react with each other to produce new compounds. So if they exist separately, something is likely to produce them constantly. That something could be a volcano, but as far as we know, only one way of life could release that amount of methane without also shedding carbon monoxide.