Even more powerful than the James Webb Space Telescope, The Habitable Worlds Observatory will not only be able to detect planets orbiting Sun-like stars, but will also be able to analyze their atmospheres for chemical indicators suggestive of life.
Launched just six months ago, the James Webb Space Telescope is the most ambitious scientific exploration project NASA has undertaken since the astronaut missions to the moon, but it won’t be the last. Preceded by the Nancy Grace Roman Observatory, a slightly less ambitious telescope due to launch in 2027, The Habitable Worlds Observatory represents NASA’s ambitions for the resumption of the Great Observatories programme, under which the Hubble and Webb telescopes were developed.
NASA unveiled the Habitable Worlds Observatory project at this year’s American Astronomical Society conference.
Developed with an initial budget of $11 billion, the new space telescope will have a 20-foot-wide mirror comparable to the current Webb telescope, but optimized to detect life on the 25 or so planets discovered so far around stars near our Sun. As for the scientific instrument suite, its centrepiece will be a high-performance coronagraph capable of differentiating the light of planets from that of the stars they orbit, well enough to determine the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
Like the Webb telescope, The Habitable Worlds Observatory will be placed about 25 million kilometres from Earth, at one of the so-called Lagrange Points. Identified as L2, this is a location where the Sun’s and Earth’s gravity cancel each other out, creating a space where objects (man-made or otherwise) can orbit both celestial bodies in a fixed location, relative to the Earth’s relative position.