Advancing the frontiers of space science: The James Webb Space Telescope and next-generation observatories
February 2, 2024
The dawn of advanced commercial space exploration vehicles like SpaceX's Starship have broadened the horizon for what next-generation telescopes can achieve. These super heavy-lift vehicles promise to deliver larger payloads to space, enabling the deployment of more ambitious space observatories with advanced telescopes that were once deemed infeasible to launch due to size and weight constraints.
Larger payloads in space directly translate to the ability to design and deploy telescopes with larger apertures and more advanced technology, allowing deeper and broader exploration of the cosmos. What once required multiple launches and complex in-space assembly can now be achieved in fewer launches, speeding up the deployment process. Acceleration is crucial in seizing timely opportunities to observe transient cosmic events and in responding to the rapidly evolving field of astronomical research.
In addition, fewer launches and the ability to carry larger payloads may lower the overall costs of deploying space observatories, which could encourage more ambitious space telescope projects and foster public and private investment in astronomical research while opening the doors for collaborative projects between different entities. For instance, joint missions between countries or between government space agencies and private companies would foster a mindshare environment for advancing space exploration and astronomical research.
Advanced space telescopes at Lagrange points
The debut of super-heavy rockets also enables advanced space telescope launches to optimal Lagrange points – gravitationally balanced locations in space where objects can stay in position relative to another, larger body – to pursue monumental science not previously possible.
Launched on December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reached the L2 point on January 24, 2022, and showcased what becomes achievable with major observatories positioned far into space. In its first year beyond Earth’s atmosphere, Webb significantly furthered our understanding in areas from early cosmic eras to distant exoplanets.
Positioning giant observatories at Lagrange points increases returns through broad, unobstructed cosmic panoramas. Their extreme sensitivity might conclusively address mysteries around dark energy, inflation, and general relativity. Pristine spectra could sample exoplanet air to judge habitability, while surveying Kuiper Belt remnants can clarify Solar System origins and chemistry. These next-generation space telescopes could unveil intricate exoplanet traits, glimpse primitive cosmic times, rigorously test physics theories, and potentially even detect signs of alien life.
Lagrange sites also facilitate first-of-a-kind instrument ideas like starshades – large, coronagraph masks positioned between a telescope and its target star to block direct starlight so that any exoplanets orbiting the target star may be observed – and huge antennas to probe early cosmological clues.
In essence, by matching vast scopes with ideal space settings, the next wave of space telescopes promises insights from neighboring exoplanets to the observable universe’s edges — if equipped with adequately robust data recorders to safeguard gathered treasures.
What have space observatories taught us? Discoveries from the James Webb Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a powerful instrument that can explore the mysteries of the universe, including the possibility of life on other planets. It recently found an ancient black hole with a mass of 1.6 million suns and captured Uranus' moons and rings in vivid detail. One of the exoplanets that JWST has been studying is K2-18 b, a sub-Neptune world that orbits a cool dwarf star in the habitable zone, 120 light-years away from Earth.
JWST has made some remarkable discoveries about the atmosphere of K2-18 b that could have implications for its habitability. It detected methane and carbon dioxide in the exoplanet’s atmosphere, which may indicate the presence of a water ocean underneath a hydrogen-rich atmosphere. These gases are also important for the greenhouse effect, which regulates the surface temperature of a planet.
Perhaps the most tantalizing discovery by JWST is the possible detection of a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS) in the atmosphere of K2-18 b. On Earth, DMS is only produced by life, mainly by phytoplankton in marine environments. However, the detection of DMS is currently tentative and more data is needed to verify its presence.
These findings show that K2-18 b is a fascinating and complex exoplanet that deserves further investigation. It also demonstrates the potential of JWST to explore diverse environments in the search for life elsewhere in the universe.
Funding missions to reach and survive L2 Lagrange point orbit
The JWST is a remarkable achievement of science and engineering, designed to explore the mysteries of the universe in the infrared spectrum. It cost NASA $9.7 billion over 24 years, making it one of the most expensive scientific projects in history. The European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency also contributed to the project, providing the launch vehicle and some of the instruments. The telescope was originally estimated to cost $4.96 billion and launch in 2014, but it faced many delays and cost overruns due to technical challenges and mismanagement.
A very expensive and delicate instrument, the JWST must withstand violent vibration during launch, the harsh conditions of space, and the risk of impact from debris and micrometeoroids – tiny fragments of rock and dust that travel at high speeds in space. In March 2023, the telescope was hit by a dust-sized micrometeoroid that damaged its main mirror, producing a noticeable effect in the observatory’s data. However, NASA said that the damage was not expected to limit the mission’s overall performance.
Because spacecraft launched to L2, like the JWST, must be rugged and resilient to endure the rigors of space and deliver groundbreaking discoveries, components are thoroughly designed and tested for extreme space environments to ensure longevity and optimum performance. But engineering technology for space is a testament to the human spirit of curiosity and exploration, and reinforces the value of investing in scientific endeavors.
Collecting and analyzing telescope data on the cosmos
Space observatories capture, store, and preserve invaluable data that is harvested from the cosmos. This data, often collected over extended periods, forms the basis of astronomical research and discoveries. The accurate recording and secure storage of this data is crucial for the success of space missions and the advancement of our understanding of the universe. This is especially true of missions launched to L2 points because of how difficult and expensive it is to reach this orbit.
The harsh environment of space, particularly the cosmic radiation, poses severe challenges to data recording and storage. Cosmic radiation can corrupt data and damage electronic components, thereby jeopardizing the integrity and reliability of data recorders used to capture this information before it is communicated back to Earth.
The introduction of radiation-tolerant solid-state data recorders (SSDRs) by Mercury addresses these challenges head-on, offering a viable solution for reliable data recording and storage in space observatories. Engineered with cutting-edge technology and features to protect against data corruption and hardware degradation, Mercury’s SSDRs can withstand the adversities of cosmic radiation and assure the integrity and longevity of the data collected by space observatories. By reliably recording and storing, these SSDRs enable space observatories to collect data without the risk of data corruption over extended periods, fundamental for capturing transient or rare astronomical events that require long-term monitoring.
Mercury's investment in commercial radiation-tolerant SSDRs represents a significant stride towards making data recording solutions more accessible to space observatory projects and lowers the entry barriers for other aerospace entities to adopt and invest in radiation-tolerant technology. By broadening availability, Mercury is fostering a conducive environment for innovation and advancement in space.
Mercury’s SSDRs are compact, robust, and scalable solutions, leveraging the SpaceVPX form factor, that can be easily integrated with various space observatory systems, thereby expediting the development and deployment of advanced space observatories to further our human understanding of space and beyond.
How are you capturing information in Space? Contact a Mercury expert today to safeguard your data and investment.
- White Paper: Space and Beyond – Technology and the Space-based Data-Chain
- White Paper: Protecting Satellite Image Integrity from Radiation
- Blog: Simplifying Data Payloads with Microelectronics
- Case Study: SSDRs for NASA’s JPL EMIT Science Mission
- Products: Space Data Recorders
Photo credit: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, O. Nayak, M. Meixner