NASA and other agencies are building a handful of telescopes to probe the universe's most puzzling mysteries.
From vantage points on Earth and in space, the upcoming telescopes will rely on next-generation technologies in their attempts to answer some of scientists' biggest questions about dark matter, the expansion of the universe, and alien life.AdvertisementSome will provide 100 times more information than today's most powerful tools for observing the skies.
The first of these telescopes, NASA's highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, is slated to launch in 2021, then start scanning the atmospheres of distant worlds for clues about extraterrestrial life. As early as 2022, other new telescopes in space will take unprecedented observations of the skies, while observatories on Earth peer back into the ancient universe.
Here's what's in the pipeline and what these new tools could reveal.
Since its launch in 1990, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has discovered new planets, revealed strange galaxies, and provided new insights into the nature of black holes.
Many questions remain, though. How has the universe evolved over time? Why can't we see 95% of it? If there are aliens, where are they?
The next generation of telescopes — in space and on the ground — will attempt to fill these gaps in our knowledge.
First, NASA is building the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to peer into the history of the universe.
A 21-foot-wide beryllium mirror will help the James Webb telescope observe faraway galaxies in detail and capture extremely faint signals within our own galaxy.
Thanks to new infrared technology, the telescope could provide an unprecedented view of the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way's center.
JWST will also search for signs of alien life in the atmospheres of exoplanets (the term for planets outside our solar system) — but only those larger than Earth.
Scientists have already identified over 4,000 exoplanets.
If an exoplanet's atmosphere contains both methane and carbon dioxide, for example, those are clues that there could be life there. JWST will look for signs like that.
To pick up where Hubble left off, NASA is also building the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST).
WFIRST will have a field of view 100 times greater than Hubble's. Each of its photos will be worth 100 Hubble images.
Dark matter makes up 85% of all matter in the universe, but nobody is sure what it is. We can't see it because it doesn't interact with light.
WFIRST will get around this issue by measuring the effects of dark matter and its counterpart, an unknown force called dark energy.
Dark matter's gravity holds the entire universe together, while dark energy pushes everything apart.
Dark energy is winning, and that's why the universe is expanding.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is designing the Euclid telescope for similar purposes.
Both telescopes will attempt to resolve a growing dispute in cosmology: How fast is the universe expanding?
The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will seek to address this conflict from its location in the mountains of Chile. It will spend 10 years scanning the entire sky.
On another Chilean mountaintop, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will search for biosignatures in the atmospheres of rocky super-Earths.
The ELT will also measure the universe's expansion and how that has accelerated over time.
But there's something missing from this planned lineup of telescopes: A tool that can look for biosignatures on exoplanets that have the highest chance of hosting alien life.
No telescopes currently under construction are powerful enough to look closely at the atmospheres of Earth-sized exoplanets. But NASA is considering concepts for telescopes that could.
Theoretically, the proposed LUVOIR and HabEx telescopes could block out stars' light enough to examine the Earth-sized planets circling them.