NASA to Develop the Successor to JWST in the Coming Decades

by | Jan 19, 2023 | News Articles, Product, Space Exploration

The cosmic orchestra captured by the James Webb Space Telescope blew the world away last year. Now, NASA is looking to design and build the successor to JWST.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched in December of 2021, everyone held their breaths as they awaited the successful deployment of the telescope. And when it gathered incredible images of the universe at play, jaws dropped all over the globe. To date, the JWST is considered to be the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever to be deployed into space in almost three decades. But humankind has never ceased to persevere. 

During the recent 241st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, NASA unveiled its plans to develop an even more powerful telescope, the 6.5 meter Habitable Worlds Observatory. A mega-successor to both Hubble and JWST, this space telescope was a recommendation by the Astro2020 Decadal Survey

Near-infrared light image (left) and mid-infrared light image (right) of Southern Ring Nebula. (Source: NASA)

The survey called on NASA to develop a broad program to support far-infrared and X-ray space telescopes, including Habitable Worlds Observatory and two other space telescopes, collectively referred to as the New Great Observatories. In response, NASA came up with the Great Observatory Technology Maturation Program (GOMaP), to design and develop the science, mission architecture and enabling technologies for NASA flagships identified by decadal surveys. The program will also focus on establishing Habitable Worlds Observatory and creating the foundation for other Future Great Observatories, while mitigating risks in future projects by learning from past NASA flagships.

With GOMaP having been kickstarted last year in 2022, it is already in its nascent planning phases, with the first of three stages of GOMaP almost complete. The first stage organizes the program, and lays plans and policies for the entire program. The second stage studies the architecture required and readies technologies for the Future Great Observatories. Finally, the third stage establishes mission architecture, executes design trades and maintains technical capabilities for Future Great Observatories (FGOs). 

An artist’s concept of JWST. (Source: NASA)

The first space telescope under GOMaP, Habitable Worlds Observatory, will span 6.5 meters and be designed to look for potentially habitable exoplanets via ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths. The other two recommended mission concepts for NASA by the decadal. One concept offers, LUVOIR, an 8 to 15 meter telescope with ultraviolet, optical and infrared capacity, and another concept suggests Habitable Exoplanet Observatory (HabEx), a 3.2 to 4 meter telescope to be merged with a spacecraft to capture direct images of exoplanets.

But it could be decades before any of these telescopes get launched, starting with Habitable Worlds Observatory itself which will not take off until the early 2040s. Jason Tumlinson, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, believes however that the timeline could be moved up if NASA’s astrophysics budget is increased.