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Are astronomers finally going to push for a replacement for Hubble?

Astronomers are considering the merger two space missions to create a new optical/ultraviolet space telescope. The mission would be designed to do both deep cosmology and exoplanet observations.

The two communities would both like to see a 4–8-metre telescope in space that would cost in excess of $5 billion. “Our interests are basically aligned,” says [Jim Kasting, a planetary scientist at Pennsylvania State University]. Such a mission would compete for top billing in the next decadal survey of astronomy by the US National Academy of Sciences, due in 2020.

This story is big news, as it indicates two things. First, the 2010 Decadal Survey, released in August 2010, is almost certainly a bust. The budget problems at NASA as well as a general lack of enthusiasm among astronomers and the public for its recommendations mean that the big space missions it proposed will almost certainly not be built.

Second, the astronomy community is hungering for an optical space telescope to replace the Hubble Space Telescope, even if the politicos in that community did not recognize that fact when they wrote the 2010 Decadal Survey. This hunger is nicely illustrated from this anecdote from the above story:

For months, NASA’s Cosmic Origins Program Analysis Group (COPAG) has been discussing the prospects for a large ultraviolet–­visible-wavelength telescope that would fly sometime after 2020 and explore the architecture of galaxies and the details of their formation. Then the Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG) got wind of the plan. Astronomer Kenneth Sembach of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, says that he was originally expecting a small group at a 26 April joint COPAG and ExoPAG meeting he is co-hosting. In the end, 49 astronomers attended in person, online or by dial-in. “It’s taken on a life of its own,” he says. [emphasis mine]

Assuming the U.S. government can get its financial house in order (which is not a safe assumption at this moment), it looks to me as if the next big astronomy flagship space mission will finally be Hubble’s replacement. And to that I would say “Hallelujah!”

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • woh cool^ i think hubble was one thing that both space nuts and the general public enjoyed . lets keep on reachin’!

  • Doris Lewis

    Just about every astronomical community can provide an anecdote like that. Their hunger for their own flavor of telescope can be equally well documented. Infrared (no, JWST isn’t *really* infrared), ultraviolet, X-ray, etc. etc. The Hubble Space Telescope has two things that contribute to the affection that the public has for it — lots of pixels (which make for pretty pictures) and great marketing. That’s not to say that optical astronomy isn’t good, but just that HST has certain advantages. Also, it’s a kind of astronomy that is already extremely well represented from ground-based telescopes. The idea that there was a lack of enthusiasm for the recommendations of the astronomy Decadal panel by the astronomy community is ludicrous. Just pulled out of thin air. The American Astronomical Society formally endorsed it, as did other professional organizations that represent the community. You will always get individuals grousing that their own favorite mission didn’t get a high priority. That panel spent huge amounts of time hearing from, and conversing with the community. In fact, the astronomical community is very satisfied with the result, though the budget situation is such that the recommendations it made may not be achievable. With all due respect to the COPAG, the idea that a $5B optical telescope is going to be more achievable in this budget climate is laughable. Unlike what you imply here, I’m sure the COPAG didn’t mean to say that it would.

    Yes, I’m an astronomer, but I wasn’t directly part of the Decadal Survey effort.

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