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NASA lays out long-term vision for astrophysics

M106A new year is a good time to make long-term plans, and NASA has jumped into the deep end of planning. On 20 December the US space agency’s astrophysics division released a wish list of future space missions — looking three decades into the future, and even beyond.

The new ‘astrophysics road map’ is notable not because it restates broad and popular themes it thinks scientists should pursue, such as ‘Are we Alone?’, ‘How Did We Get Here?’ and ‘How Does Our Universe Work?’, but because the report, compiled by a team led by NASA’s Chryssa Kouveliotou, also lays out the technologies needed to help missions answer these broad-brush questions.

Breaking down the next three decades into 10-year increments, the road map notes that ‘near-term’ projects for the next decade are already slated, such the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission that launched this week and the James Webb Space Telescope, slated for a 2018 liftoff. For the decade that follows, the report lays out notional missions spanning the electromagnetic spectrum, from a microwave mission studying the polarization of the cosmic microwave background left over from the Big Bang, through infrared and optical light all the way to X-rays. Looking out 20–30 years from now, the road map aims even broader, at a series of ‘mapper’ missions targeting Earth-like planets, black holes, cosmic dawn and gravitational waves.

It won’t be easy. Today’s technologies simply aren’t suited to future mission needs. For the most part, the road map notes, “our methods of building space telescopes have not progressed much beyond building and testing a ground-based telescope and rocketing it into space”.  That’s bad because materials and optics behave very differently in an Earth-bound lab than they do in the zero-gravity environment of space. “The key to bigger and better space telescopes may rely, instead, on assembling and testing telescopes on-orbit,” the team writes.

One idea is to develop flexible membranes that could be used to collect light in place of monolithic mirror glass. Another is to use three-dimensional printing to manufacture components directly in orbit; such a printer is slated to fly to the International Space Station next year, in the first test in space for this technology.

Finally, future missions will probably rely heavily on interferometry, in which multiple telescope inputs are combined to create much sharper images than any individual telescope could produce. To pull this off in space, engineers will need to develop precise ways to fly spacecraft in tandem and to improve laser measurements to combine the inputs from the different craft and produce the final image. Pulling off any of the missions in the 20- to 30-year time frame will require massive advances in this area, the road map notes.

Now it’s up to NASA to see if it can fulfill such dreams. With ongoing funding difficulties, that’s far from a sure bet.


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    Brad Arnold said:

    At the current rate of technological progress, it is hard to see how long term NASA plans have any real relevance. Sort of like the local weather forecast showing more than a couple of days out. Furthermore (sacrilege), it appears that NASA’s paradigm of government space exploration is way more expensive and less daring than private/semi-private enterprises. Perhaps NASA will metamorphosize into more of a model like DARPA. They don’t forecast that, do you?

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      James Vance said:

      NASA’s roadmap as described in this article appears to reflect a type involving broad fundamental research objectives that will utilize technologies yet to be invented or developed, and that approach is quite different than DARPA’s focus on R&D for systemic and technological objectives in support of core strategic functions evolving from its mission and principles.

      Do you or anyone else forecast the probable mortgage rate(s) applicable to a prospective house purchase at some indeterminate point in time? No, but most people do project their present desire to gain ownership of a house in support of a potential family into the future when envisioning how their life may unfold, and many will attach a timeline for their desire(s) to become achieved.

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    Uncle Al said:

    use 3D printing to manufacture components directly in orbit” Pray tell how to secure unconsolidated raw material from floating about prior to printing. One is eager to see 50 micron resolution deliver lambda/20 optics. The James Web mirror overall does not deform in excess of 38 nm, including temperature gradients. ABS plastic does not do that. Nobody says “transport a CNC lathe” into orbit – and that allows certification of the bulk stuff if not the thing to be carved from it.

    The proper speculation is for a small orbital 3D printer to build the large one to build the apparatus. That can be studied forever.

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    Atulya Education said:

    I hope this roadmap will bring us in a new and bright future but In the previous 10 years we have not progressed as much the expectation was. But now in the last some according to the inventions in information technology we can expect the above mentioned things.

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