James Webb Space Telescope hasn’t even launched yet and NASA is already looking for a successor. Could the LUVOIR mission be the answer?

NASA is faced with a difficult decision of which instrument will shape scientists’ research in the 2040s as the agency’s next major space telescope. Although the answer is still years away, NASA has financed extensive evaluations of four potential projects to understand better the risks and opportunities associated with each proposal. One of such mission concepts is called the Large UV/Optical/IR Surveyor (LUVOIR). The LUVOIR is a concept for a highly capable, multi-wavelength space observatory with ambitious science objectives.

The team behind LUVOIR has proposed a launch date in the mid-2030s. The space telescope includes upgradeable modern instruments and would reside at Earth-Sun’s second Lagrange point, or L2 point. The state-of-the-art observatory would be able to observe ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths of light.

The LUVOIR study team is considering two designs. One with an 8-meter mirror, known as Architecture A, which could launch on a heavy-lift vehicle like the Falcon Heavy. And another design, Architecture B, with a 15-meter mirror that would use the Space Launch System (SLS). The 15-meter mirror would be 50% bigger than the biggest Earth-based telescope. For comparison, Hubble is only 2.6 meters.

This mission would enable significant advances in a wide range of science. It would study events from the age of reionization to galaxy formation and evolution, star and planet formation, and solar system remote sensing. The main purpose of LUVOIR is to characterize a wide spectrum of exoplanets. Including those that could be habitable or possibly inhabitable.

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If LUVOIR is built, its primary contribution to the field will be to provide a detailed image of planets that now meet scientists’ bare-bones criteria for Earth-like planets. These planets resemble our planet in terms of size, mass, and orbit. However, scientists should begin to comprehend how precious our dynamic planet is based on LUVOIR studies of just 28 of those worlds.

To us, extrasolar planets are little black shadows, not pale blue spots. A mission like LUVOIR would change that by collecting enough data for scientists to begin studying so-called Earth-like exoplanets in a statistical, population-wide manner. That’s similar to what the Kepler Space Telescope did for exoplanets in general. It discovered so many new worlds. Thus, astronomers began to understand the relative quantity of massive planets orbiting close to their stars versus small, rocky worlds.

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LUVOIR would zoom in on such small, rocky worlds and tell scientists what percentage of planets that appear to be Earth-like have surface water, an atmosphere, and growing organisms. It would be able to detect the structure and composition of exoplanet atmospheres and surfaces. It could also identify biosignatures produced by life in the atmosphere of a faraway exoplanet. Biosignatures of interest in the atmosphere include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, molecular oxygen, ozone, and water.

LUVOIR would not produce images but spectra. These are breakdowns of the amount of light of various wavelengths originating from each of the worlds it investigates. These spectra would allow scientists to identify the compounds on that world. Thus, offering further information about what’s happening on the surface.

According to the LUVOIR team, if scientists can do these investigations on at least 28 small, rocky worlds that turn out to have atmospheres but show no signs of life, they should be able to conclude that less than 10% of planets with the same size and orbital characteristics as Earth contain life.

If such an analysis succeeds in identifying life, scientists can move on to a more difficult problem like understanding the laws of life. There are undoubtedly more, but we’ll never know what they are till we have more examples of independent evolution.

The major goal of LUVOIR would be to detect and study alien planets to understand the universality of life better. Still, the telescope would also find lots of other worlds.

However, investigating exoplanets alone will not be enough to make LUVOIR a flagship mission concept. The LUVOIR team must also make the telescope’s architecture relevant to a variety of astrophysics subfields. As a result, the team had to refine the suggested instrument suite to be as flexible as possible.

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The mission concept team also designed a dozen sample science projects spanning the scale of the universe to be included in the mission concept spanning the scale of the universe. The team wanted to show off the work the telescope could do, from studying the dark matter to showing how galaxies work to monitoring icy moons in the outer solar system for plumes of water gushing out through their frozen shells.

LUVOIR would be able to observe objects within the Solar System better than anything else. For example, here’s a view of Enceladus from Hubble, compared to the view from LUVOIR.

Enceladus seen from Hubble and LUVOIR. Credit: NASA

If NASA chooses LUVOIR as its next massive space telescope project, it will culminate a long line of ideas.

Its predecessor, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (Roman), previously known as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), was repeatedly canceled in budget requests by President Donald Trump’s administration, only to be revived by Congress.

Another predecessor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is well behind schedule and over budget, with a launch date of December 2021 at best.

LUVOIR’s scientists and engineers have turned that experience with Webb into a list of ten recommendations that they feel will keep their project on track. Not all the strategies are under the team’s control; others would require a review of NASA’s policy. If NASA chooses the project, the LUVOIR team believes the recommendations will help them avoid a similar fate as Webb.

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