NASA’s Next Big Space Telescope

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NASA’s Next Big Space Telescope
With the James Webb Space Telescope now fully operational at L2, let’s take a moment to look ahead to NASA’s next space telescope — the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope — with astrophysicist Dr. Jonathan McDowell.

The james webb space telescope the
largest telescope ever deployed in space
has successfully entered service after
months of testing
it marks a major stride in astronomy and
will help us understand the universe
like never before
wep will specialize in infrared
infrared is useful as it allows you to
peer extremely far away to galaxies that
formed shortly after the big bang the
team behind webb recently published the
first infrared scientific pictures taken
by the telescope
and they are breathtaking
never before have we seen views of our
universe like this
be it invisible light
or infrared
these targets included several galaxies
nebulae and even an exoplanet
while webb’s first pictures are
awe-inspiring the question now comes up
what’s next after web
what space telescope can surpass webb
enter the nancy grace roman space
telescope or roman for short
roman will be an infrared invisible
light space telescope
operating at the earth’s sun lagrange
point 2 or l2 as it allows the telescope
to be far from any light reflecting off
the earth or moon but also to be near
for launch and communication purposes
but roman isn’t bigger than webb or
really more powerful either
it will take a unique approach to
in-space astronomy
instead of being a super precise and
zoomed-in telescope like hubble or webr
roman is a wide field telescope
this means roman can image large swaths
of the sky at once
more specifically it can image 100 times
the field of view of hubble with the
same precision that hubble can in
to learn more about roman its goals and
why exactly a wide field telescope is
needed sat down with dr
jonathan mcdowell an astronomer at the
center for astrophysics dr mcdowell also
works on the chandra x-ray observatory
one of the most capable x-ray space
telescopes ever flown
named after nasa’s first chief of
astronomy nancy grace roman will be able
to see in infrared and visible light it
features a 2.4 meter diameter mirror the
same size as hubble which was donated to
nasa by the national reconnaissance
because the telescope’s mirror was
already made the rest of the mission had
to be built around that mirror
as dr mcdowell put it forced us down the
road of doing something with this nice
telescope mirror that had been built for
at the national reconnaissance office
that had been a spectacular
failure and and never got launched this
mirror is not that large compared to
webb which itself has a six meter mirror
for reference having a larger mirror
generally means you could see more
detail on objects as well as be able to
see fainter objects
but not having a huge mirror isn’t a
problem for roman it isn’t searching
that much for tiny objects we’ll get
more into that later
roman will feature just two instruments
the wide field instrument and the
coronagraph instrument the coronagraph
instrument is a technology demonstrator
and a chronograph is basically a device
that blocks or cancels out the light
from a star in order to see the planets
around it this often has involved
physically blocking a star using an
opaque object to put it simply however
roman’s coronagraph won’t simply block
out the light using an opaque object by
using a complex arrangement of
deformable mirrors
light blockers
and software the instrument will be able
to essentially cancel out the light from
a star using destructive interference it
can then observe any planets around the
now obscured star
coronagraphs have previously flown to
space on the hubble and james webb space
and even though james webb is a pretty
modern telescope roman’s coronagraph
instrument will be two to three orders
of magnitude more powerful in being able
to make out the planets around a star dr
mcdowell described this extreme power
and so the idea is that you should be
able to see a contrast of 1 in 1 to 10
that’s to say that
if there’s a star
that’s a brightness of 10 million and a
planet that’s a brightness of one
you can see that planet next to the
glare of the star even if they’re only
0.3 arc seconds apart from each other
which is ludicrous the coronagraph on
board roman will also be able to split
the light coming from those distant
planets to determine what gases are in
their atmospheres the coronagraph will
only be used at the beginning of the
mission to demonstrate the breakthrough
instrument should things go very well
with it it may be entered into
operational service around one and a
half years into the mission roman’s
other instrument the wide field
is the workhorse of the mission it is
designed to photograph wide swaths of
the sky at once it will use 18 large
sensors to image targets creating a 300
megapixel image with each exposure
dr mcdowell explained this quite simply
uh but the main camera is pretty
straightforward it’s just like brute
huge field of view lots of pixels
let’s see what we can see
uh and and it has a series of filters
that let it
measure precisely the amount of light in
different wavelength ranges and
different color ranges
eight different filters are available
for the camera with each only allowing
certain wavelengths of light through
roman will be capable of seeing all the
way from blue light to near infrared
now it can’t see as far into infrared as
webb can but it can see much more
visible light
the wide field instrument will be able
to see 0.28 square degrees of sky in
each capture which is again over 100
times the field of view of hubble
however due to improvements in camera
and mirror technology roman will be able
to have similar if not slightly better
precision and infrared compared to
this is huge because it means roman can
see a huge swath of sky at once in much
less time than hubble or webb
but what will roman even do with all
this capability
what is it investigating
well dr mcdowell gave us some insight
saying that roman will be a great tool
in the quest to understand dark energy
dark energy is a theory that may
describe mass distribution issues in the
it’s something we can’t quite see
directly but we can see the effects of
one great way to study dark energy is by
using gravitational lensing where a
large object like a star or galaxy
distorts the light coming from another
object behind it using its gravity in
fact we can actually see this phenomenon
happening in one of webb’s first images
of smacs0723
smax0723 if you’re so inclined many
other telescopes can do this on a small
scale with their small field of view but
roman’s large field of view will allow
this effect to be observed on a massive
this same method will also be used to
search for exoplanets as their light can
also be distorted and brightened by
gravitational lensing
the study of dark energy through its
effects on the universe was the main
purpose of the proposed joint dark
energy mission which evolved in the
early 2010s to become roman
and dr mcdowell brought up one last
interesting tidbit about roman
the other thing that i think is cool
about it
what i just read is that
it can
slow quite quickly
it can move to look at a different part
of the sky
in only a couple of minutes
he then went on to discuss why moving
quickly can be beneficial saying
that’s an important piece of science if
you want to look at a supernova that’s
just gone off or a gamma ray burst
that’s just gone off
and see
or a fast radio burst and image the uh
the galaxy that’s coming from and see if
you can spot you know the star that
exploded that’s the counterpart
to what you’re seeing in some other wave
band and so so you know what you have is
like the gamma-ray satellite season
sends an email to roman
which then you know tracks to it or
something like that roman is currently
set to launch no later than may 2027 on
a yet unannounced commercial rocket the
future of space telescopes after roman
is uncertain the decadal survey which is
basically a meeting of scientists to
determine the space flight goals of the
united states each decade recently
recommended an approximately 6 meter
diameter ultraviolet visible and
infrared observatory to be launched in
the 2040s
this telescope approximately the same
size as webb would be a true successor
to hubble as it could see in all of
hubble’s wavelengths of light the
closest proposed mission to this concept
is luvoir b an 8 meter telescope that
would also unfold in space
similar to webb a larger variant of this
called lufoir a
would have a 15 meter mirror
but unfortunately the survey advised
against such a large and expensive
telescope citing the infamous delays of
after the recommended six meter scope
the survey recommended a large x-ray
telescope to follow in the years after
the future of space telescopes looks to
be quite interesting
roman would be a great asset in
astronomy as will whatever telescope
ends up following it
we’d like to thank dr jonathan mcdowell
for his time it was a ton of fun and
very informational to get to sit down
with him
you could check out his work at planet
4589 on twitter where he has excellent
information on satellite tracking
astronomy and more
our complete one hour interview with dr
mcdowell is available right now for our
channel members
we only discussed roman for about half
the interview and there are some great
conversations in there on web and what
telescopes he thinks should be selected

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