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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!”