New Space Telescopes Race For A New View Of The Cosmos

29:31 minutes

an overhead shot taken in a cavernous room. one wall is a giant open hatch that has to be at least 30 feet in diameter. the telescope, with its large, golden hexagon mirror, emerges with technicians, tiny in comparison, working around it
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope emerges from a chamber after cryogenic testing. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

28 years ago, astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery gently raised the Hubble Space Telescope, or HST, up from the shuttle bay, and released it into space. Geologist and astronaut Kathryn Sullivan commemorated the moment with a short speech, as she floated in the shuttle.

“We again as many others have thought numerous times about the historical significance that the advent of an observatory such as the HST would have, and how it stands in comparison to the advances of Galileo, and even to Edwin Hubble’s periods of observation.”

It would be a few years (and a repair job) before the truly historic nature of the telescope was revealed, showing us new views of the cosmos, and wonders it wasn’t even designed to study, like exoplanets.

But Hubble is getting up there in years, and it’s time for new history to be made. Lots of new telescopes are waiting in the wings: The James Webb Space Telescope, W-FIRST, plus a collection of others vying to be the next big thing in space telescopes.

In this segment, Ira and Gizmodo science writer Ryan Mandelbaum take a tour of space science in the years to come and the tools we’re going to do it with.

Further Reading

Read Ryan Mandelbaum’s article about the James Webb Space Telescope’s delays and how it could negatively impact future space science. [Gizmodo]

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Ryan Mandelbaum

Ryan Mandelbaum is a science writer and birder based in Brooklyn, New York.

Sara Seager

Sara Seager is professor of planetary science and physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

David Spergel

David Spergel is director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute, and a professor of Astrophysics at Princeton. He’s based in New York, New York.

Aki Roberge

Aki Roberge is study scientist for LUVOIR, and a research astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour we’re going to answer second grader [INAUDIBLE], who had a curious caterpillar question. But first, 28 years ago astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery gently released the Hubble Space Telescope HST into space. Geologist and astronaut Kathryn Sullivan commemorated the moment with a short speech as she floated in the shuttle. 

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: We, again, as many others have fought numerous times about the historical significance that the advent of an observatory such as the HST would have and how it stands in comparison to the advances of Galileo and even to the advances of Edwin Hubble’s periods of observation. 

IRA FLATOW: It would be a few years, a few repair jobs later before Hubble lived up to those comparisons. But it eventually did, gifting us with new views of the cosmos and wonders it wasn’t even designed to study like exoplanets. But Hubble is getting up there in years. In fact, this month is the 25th anniversary of the first repair mission to the Hubble. And lots of new telescopes are waiting in the wings or on the drawing boards, like the James Webb Space Telescope and the WFIRST plus a collection of others vying to be the next big thing in space telescopes. 

So this hour– a tour of space science in the years to come and the tools we’re going to do it with– it may be a bumpy ride, though, because as always money and politics play a large role in determining the future of space exploration. So here to help us out is a space geek Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Hey, Ira. How’s everything going? 

IRA FLATOW: Good to have you back. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, it’s always great to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: And our question to our listeners is– let’s ask our listeners to react– what’s most intriguing to you about space in the night sky? Where would you point a future telescope? Our number– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri. 

Let’s start out, Ryan. Let’s talk about what we’ve got up there already– Hubble and so on. So how is our space telescope fleet holding up? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So I think it depends on who you ask. As far as space research is going, I mean, this was a great year for launching stuff, especially to planets. We have the Parker Solar Probe. But it was also a rocky year for the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra Space Telescope– the Chandra X-ray Telescope. Their gyroscopes failed, sort of revealing that they’re getting old. 

IRA FLATOW: Just like all the [LAUGHTER] rest of us. But we also have a new telescope that’s waiting in the wings that’s– how shall I put it– it’s waiting in the wings for quite some times. The James Webb Telescope seems like it’s always two, three years away, right? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So I’m not old enough to know– to really feel it. But I mean even in the past couple of years, we’ve seen delays in this telescope. It’s some would say hundreds of millions over budget. Some would say it’s billions of over budget. 

It’s going to do amazing things. I think that’s something that we have to keep in mind is it’s going to be a great space telescope. But I think some people are getting antsy. And it really does depend on who you ask when it comes to what’s going on with that telescope. 

IRA FLATOW: What are the great things that are expected of it? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: It’s going to look deep. It’s going to look very– it’s going to look further into the distance over a broader span of wavelengths than the Hubble Space Telescope. So we’re going to get even better images. It will have potentially some exoplanetary capabilities. 

It’s really going to help us in answering our mysteries about the universe. And that’s why it’s so exciting. And that’s why so many people think it’s going to be worth it is it’s just going to look so far and be hopefully crisp. 

IRA FLATOW: Ryan, great segue for me to bring in our next guests, who are experts in these fields. David Spergel is the Director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in New York, Professor of astrophysics at Princeton. He’s here with us. Welcome. 

DAVID SPERGEL: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: And professor Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at MIT. Welcome back, Dr. Seager. 


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let me ask you. Dr. Seager, where would you like the new telescopes to do for you? 

SARA SEAGER: For me– well, for me I would love the new telescopes to find another Earth. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. We can go now. 


What are the odds of that happening do you think? 

SARA SEAGER: Well, the odds really depend on what’s out there. What did nature provide? Are there Earths around every star? Or are they incredibly rare? I mean we have– think we have a bit of a handle on that. But we really don’t know it. So it would be a true journey of exploration. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to David now to talk about the– you’re the co-chair of the science team for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope WFIRST. Is this a lot different from the James Webb? 

DAVID SPERGEL: So James Webb will go deeper than ever before. So it take the Hubble’s capabilities. And it’s a bigger telescope and will stare at small parts of the sky very deeply. WFIRST is the size of Hubble. But it can image 100 times as much sky. So think of every Hubble picture you’ve seen. Now imagine it 100 times bigger. 

With that capability we will be able to survey most of the sky at Hubble resolution. That will let us do a wide range of science. One of the things we hope it will do will teach us more about the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Atoms make up only 5% of the universe. We’re in a very embarrassing place of not knowing what makes up 95% of the universe. 

IRA FLATOW: Pretty embarrassing. 

DAVID SPERGEL: We’d like to figure that out. It also will be carrying a chronograph that will let it image and start to characterize planets around nearby stars. We will not have the sensitivity to see an Earth like planet with the chronograph. But it’s a stepping stone towards that. And I think as we look towards the future of astronomy– what do we want to do in the next 20, 50 years– the program that Sara talked about of finding planets like Earth and understanding the diversity of planets that are out there is going to be a big part– already is a big part of what we wanted to learn about the universe around us. 

IRA FLATOW: So I mean what’s the timeline for launching a telescope like this? I mean, are we seeing it– is it going to be right on the heels of JWST? Will we have a break between the two? 


DAVID SPERGEL: It depends on what money Congress allocates. If they allocate the money that we hope for the profile, which will make it it will get launched about 2025 so pretty soon after JWST. 

IRA FLATOW: And Sara, what’s it going to do for you in your search for that Earth out there? 

SARA SEAGER: Well the chronograph is a great start. But believe it or not my team called Starshade wants to launch a giant specially shaped screen. This screen would have its own spacecraft and would work with WFIRST. And we call the mission Starshade Rendezvous, because Starshade would be built and launched separately. And it would rendezvous. It would meet up in outer space with WFIRST. 

And Starshade would act like the chronograph. But it’s a big screen outside the telescope very far away. And it would block out the star light. So we could see a planet directly. And the Starshade has a chance to reach down to Earths around the very nearest say dozen brightest sun like stars. 

IRA FLATOW: What do you learn by seeing the planet directly, as opposed to the way we see it now? 

SARA SEAGER: Well, the most common way to find planets now– how we see planets– is by transits. They go in front of the stars– just lucky. Like, the orbits are lined up just so. 

And so the planet goes in front of the star as seen from Earth or the telescope. But those are very rare. In fact, for an Earth– an Earth sun analog the chance of it being lined up just so is about 1 in 200. So it’s possible that no true Earth around a true sun transits. And so we have to go to different technique. 

IRA FLATOW: You agree, right? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah, so I guess in one of my questions relating to that is just so what would you say that this is going to help us look for Earth like exoplanets or extraterrestrial life? I mean that’s really what a lot of people my generation are really interested in right now. 

SARA SEAGER: Right. Right. Well, hopefully I mean this is like a multigenerational search, right? So the James Webb is our first shot at it. And the James Webb primarily focuses on planets transiting small red dwarf stars. These stars are much smaller, much lower luminosity. And this time they have way more flares and giant bursts of energy than our own sun type star does. 

So we have the James Webb with these small [INAUDIBLE] dwarfs first. And then we have a lot of plans. We literally in the astronomy community have come up with a menu of options. It’s like you go out for dinner. And do you want like the appetizer or the main course. Or you know, if you’re in Europe you get two courses and then the dessert. Like, which one do you want? So we have telescopes of all different sizes that can search more and more stars. 

DAVID SPERGEL: Yeah, I think you need to think about the search for life on other planets and the search– characterize the other planets, as Sara said, as this multigenerational effort. It’s been 100 years from when Hubble took the Mount Wilson telescope and started to map out the expansion of the universe. 

And we’ve continued that with bigger and bigger telescopes going to space with the Hubble telescope. WFIRST in many ways is continuing that tradition by measuring the distances to galaxies. And that’s been 100 year quest to explore the universe and characterize its shape. I think imaging other planets– the first step is finding them. Having the sensitivity to perhaps find signs of life we’ll take telescopes beyond what we are thinking about now. 

But I think of this like in medieval times building cathedrals, right? It’s this 100 year process. And we build one piece. And we make one step. And we develop one generation of telescopes. And we learn from those and move on. 

SARA SEAGER: And so just to tie it back to something concrete with WFIRST and of Starshade it gets to be a real mission and to go with WFIRST. You know, if we’re lucky like in the luckiest scenario we find another Earth. And we see signs of water vapor. And we see signs of oxygen. But we don’t know enough to like jump up and down and say, yay, we found life even though oxygen is a great sign that life might be producing it. You know, that would be enough to get the next generation telescope built and launched, funded and operated. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So one thing I’m actually interested in is sort of the history of how we ended up with a telescope like WFIRST as doing this research. I mean, we know that WFIRST came from mirrors that were donated by the NRO, the National Reconnaissance Office, if I remember correctly. And so is there sort of an element of trying to fit these missions around having that mirror? 

DAVID SPERGEL: So this has a kind of a long history. So every decade the astronomy community identifies its top priorities– what we call the Decadal Survey. In the last decade different communities came forward and said they wanted a wide field telescope. People interested in studying dark energy wanted a wide field telescope. 

People interested in mapping the sky to study galaxies wanted a wide field telescope. People interested in what’s called micro lensing– that’s using a gravitational lensing to detect planets around other stars– this is not to get the detailed kind of study that Sara is talking about but to perhaps see thousands of planets around nearby stars and understand the diversity of planetary systems– they wanted a wide field telescope. So the Decadal Survey said, let’s build a wide field telescope. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. I’m going to stop you in your story right there, because we have to build a commercial break– 


–in here. We’re going to take a break and come back and talk lots more with David Spergel and Sara Seager and also my comrade in arms Ryan Mandelbaum here. Our number, if you want to call in– and we want to hear from you– 844-724-8255. What would you like to point these telescopes at? What’s most intriguing to you about space and the night sky? We’ll get some answers and more questions after the break. Stay with us. 

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow here with Ryan Mandelbaum of Gizmodo. We’re talking to Sara about the future of our space telescopes and what we might use to them to see with. Our guests are David Spergel of Princeton and the Flatiron Institute and Sara Seager of MIT. Backtracking a little bit, David, what went wrong with the James Webb Telescope construction project? Why is it so overpriced and so far behind? 

DAVID SPERGEL: Fundamentally it’s a big telescope doing amazing things. And it’s hard to build such complicated systems. So it’s a hard challenging thing. That’s– the hard challenging things sometimes take longer. Most recently– 

SARA SEAGER: It’s like, Ira, have you ever renovated your kitchen or your house? It always takes longer. 

IRA FLATOW: Always. 

SARA SEAGER: Now imagine that– yeah, now imagine that you’re renovating like 13 different things at once. James Webb has over 10 brand new technologies. And getting all of those built and figured out and putting them all together– it’s just like a giant tangle of things. 

DAVID SPERGEL: Now most recently what went wrong is it went in to shake test. You know, you go launch on a rocket. You got to shake it. And they shook it. And 200 pieces flew off. That was not good. 

IRA FLATOW: I hate it when that happens. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I hate it when that happens. 


DAVID SPERGEL: So they had to go back and figure out what went wrong and fix all that. And that’s added a couple years. And a couple of years of keeping all those engineers working you know gets close to $1 billion in an overrun. So that was a big setback. 

IRA FLATOW: What’s that famous expression about a billion here, a billion there? You’re talking about real money. 

DAVID SPERGEL: Absolutely. 

IRA FLATOW: Sara, I’ve heard that you’ve described some of these telescope projects as “Christmas trees.” What do you mean by that? 

SARA SEAGER: Well, what I mean– well, OK. I don’t want to– yeah, so when you see here WFIRST and everybody wants something on it, right? And as David described it, the Decadal had blessed it and said, we are going to do WFIRST. The next thing we know there’s a chronograph on it, which benefits my community. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain about that. 

And the chronograph, though, in principle shouldn’t add too much time or money. It makes it the whole thing more complicated. I’m guilty of adding to the Christmas tree, because I represent a large community who wants to add Starshade. Now Starshade doesn’t– is separate from WFIRST. But it imposes constraints on WFIRST, which has to now be what we call Starshade ready. It has to be able to communicate with the Starshade, et cetera. 

So anytime there’s a telescope out there and we’re worried that it may be the only one for quite a while, every other part of the community who’s not already involved wants to add something to it. And that’s the term– I didn’t make that would term up– but the Christmas tree approach where you just keep adding things to it. 

IRA FLATOW: Ryan, let’s talk about the next crop of telescopes still in the proposal stages. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Oh, yes, so you heard David talk a little earlier about the Decadal process. And so what that essentially is is the entire astrophysics community banding together and deciding or what they say is big basically getting the priorities straight– so what the big missions we want to pursue are. We had an– we had a Decadal in 2010. And we are coming up on the Decadal in 2020. 

Now it doesn’t just include these space telescopes. It also includes them smaller and medium range missions. And you know, we are pushing through on a lot of those missions from the 2010. But now the big flagship is there’s going to be a telescope that’s recommended. You know, they had WFIRST in the 2010 survey. And now they’re going to recommend a telescope for the 2020 survey. 

Now there are four teams who are working hard right now to put forth sort of their best proposals– sorry, not proposals– their best studies– their concept studies for what the Decadal might decide. Now it doesn’t mean that they’re going to pick one. It could be a combination of some. It could be just one of them. It could be none of them. I mean, so these teams are just going to really try and put forth the best science case. I can go through them if you’d like to hear– 

IRA FLATOW: Give me a couple. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. So I would say the LUVOIR is sort of the one that comes to mind. It is a large, UV and infrared telescope that would essentially– it’s just, let’s just go for it. Let’s just see what we can see, see everything. It’s deep, it’s big, it would be able to maybe directly image and take spectra, see what molecules are around exoplanets. Then there’s HabEx, which would similarly have some really incredible exoplanetary capabilities. 

Exoplanets are obviously of a lot of conversation right now, especially with the search for extraterrestrial life. There’s Lynx, which is an X-ray telescope, and then Origins which is an infrared telescope. Origins would be just looking for the origins, right, the origins of galaxies, the origins of planets. And then Lynx would be sort of Chandra’s successor. 

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Seager, I know you’re involved in one of these projects, the HabEx, Tell us what that telescope would be designed for. 

SARA SEAGER: Sure. Well before, I told you we’ll have like different sized telescopes that can approach the same problem of studying sun-like stars and looking for Earths and solar systems around planetary systems around those nearby stars. So HabEx would be a 4 meter aperture, and would be what we call off-axis. And it would be working in the ultraviolet, and the optical, and the very, very near infrared. So it would kind of be like a replacement for Hubble, but over 10 times the area bigger. 

And HabEx– we call it HabEx Observatory– it has four instruments. Two will be for general astrophysics, and two are for exoplanets. It will have an internal chronograph, and it will also be accompanied by a [INAUDIBLE]. And its goal in terms of exoplanets is to find habitable worlds, planets that might be like Earth. 

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s go to the phones, our number 844-724-8255. Blake in Paducah, Kentucky. Hi, Blake. 

BLAKE: How are you doing? 

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead. 

BLAKE: OK. So I’m going to get a little theoretical physics, you know, brain, here on you. So I know you all were discussing the ultraviolet applications of all these new telescopes, and I’ve been kind of drug into the whole, you know, big space reemergence– how space is cool, finally, idea. So I was wondering if we were going to use these applications to maybe kind of see if we could understand the practicality of the black hole, which is very difficult anyway, because they are infinitely large. But I didn’t know if that was kind of a mission. 

IRA FLATOW: Hm. David? 

DAVID SPERGEL: So the Lynx telescope, the X-ray telescope, its primary goal is to understand where these supermassive black holes come from and how they evolve. So this is sort of our choice for the decadal, right. We have all these exciting problems– black holes, extrasolar planets– we probably only have the resources to maybe do one of these. We’ll have to make that choice. 

IRA FLATOW: Well speaking of choices, as you say, there is not a bottomless pit of funding here, right. Scientists understand this. And is the new administration, the Trump administration, open to these new products, new ideas, Ryan? 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: So the first thing Trump did was say that he’s going to scrap WFIRST But thankfully, we have a Congress who is generally much more amenable to space research in general. And I can’t speak for that personally, it’s totally up to Congress, but you know, there are scientists who are lobbying Congress to see if they can get the funding for these projects. 


KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Well David and I testified to the Senate last August in preparation for them writing their next NASA bill and they love it. People everywhere love space. People in Congress are highly supportive of space science. 

DAVID SPERGEL: So that’s one of the great things about the decadal survey is it has bipartisan support. You know, I’ve gone and talked to Democrats and Republicans on the Hill and they like the fact that the science community makes these choices and we’ve been doing this for 50 years, so it’s a long-standing process. And there have been times in the past where presidents have tried to not follow the decadal survey, and usually we’ve gotten the missions built. 

IRA FLATOW: And so you’re all optimistic. 


IRA FLATOW: OK. We have a lot of tweets coming in. Oh, a lot of people. One tweet says, “I would like to see future space telescopes pointed toward the closest exoplanet to see if we could get any details of the planet and its solar system.” Another says we need to look at a study– study more of the closest stars to us for exoplanets, people in Dr. Seager’s corner here. Also someone says, “I want to find Halley’s comet and point it at it.” So I’m not sure how practical that is. 

But I want to bring in another guest, now, who’s working on one of the next-generation telescope candidates, and that is called LUVOIR, and Ryan mentioned this. Dr. Aki Roberge is a scientist at LUVOIR and a research astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Welcome to Science Friday. 

AKI ROBERGE: Hi, great to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about it tell us about your product– your product– your project, LUVOIR. 


AKI ROBERGE: Oh, I wish it was a project. 


IRA FLATOW: Well it’s not it’s not one yet, is that correct? 

AKI ROBERGE: Yes, that is. I’m the study scientist as opposed to the project scientist. 

IRA FLATOW: And what are you studying in your pro– well, hope-to-be project? 

AKI ROBERGE: Yeah. So as Ryan said earlier, there are these four large mission concepts that NASA is studying right now. And I have to say, compared to previous decadals, NASA is putting far more time, effort, and detail into these concept studies than has ever been done before. And so I’m the study scientist for LUVOIR, which Ryan mentioned, and I liked how he described it. LUVOIR really is kind of– the philosophy is like, go for it. 

So it’s really key science goal is to do, as Sarah said, find and really study those rocky Earth-size exoplanets that are in the warm inner regions of nearby sun-like stars, and see if they are actually Earth-like– not just Earth-size but Earth-like– and that includes searching them for signs of life, you know, what astronomers call biosignatures. So Sara mentioned one of them– oxygen. But to do this, to really study those planets that are most like the Earth, the small ones that are around the sun-like stars, we need the direct imaging technique that David talked about, and the WFIRST chronograph is a technology stepping stone for that. And we need to get above Earth’s atmosphere to do this, and we need a more powerful space telescope than has ever been built before. 

OK. So LUVOIR is one of these concepts. It’s sort of a– we view it as like a– you could kind of imagine it as a super, duper, duper, Hubble. And we’re studying two variants we’re coming up with, you could call them point designs. So one of them’s large, with an eight meter diameter primary mirror, and the other one is really large, with a 15 meter diameter primary mirror. And for comparison, the Hubble mirror is 2.4 meters. 

IRA FLATOW: Where would you put this? 

AKI ROBERGE: Earth-sun L2, where all sensible telescopes want to be. 

IRA FLATOW: Explain that to our listeners, where that is. 

AKI ROBERGE: It’s what the Lagrange 2 point where sort of gravity between the Earth, sun– the Earth, and the sun, and the telescope– are all balanced. So it’s a really stable place to be. It’s nice and quiet, it’s cold, and it’s stable. And you’re not whipping– 

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: What people don’t realize is like, with Hubble orbiting Earth, Earth is really bad for astronomy. It’s bright and it’s hot. So as Aki says, we want to get as far away from Earth as possible. 

IRA FLATOW: Why not put something on the far side of the moon? We’ve talked about that for years, radio telescopes pointing away from Earth over the cell phone noise. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: China just launched a rocket to the far side of the moon, and that’s part of– radio astronomy as part of that. 

IRA FLATOW: Is that right? 



KATHRYN SULLIVAN: I mean, it doesn’t really buy you anything out there. I mean– 

AKI ROBERGE: Yeah. Not really, actually. 

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: –the trouble is, you’ve got to land there, and then you’ve got to assemble it there, or build it there. And the regolith– this dust that’s on the moon– will be really bad for your telescope optics. 

IRA FLATOW: Whose idea was that? I don’t remember anybody– 

AKI ROBERGE: Well it’s probably good for radio telescopes, but not so good for optical ones. 

DAVID SPERGEL: Yeah. We studied this for optical telescopes, and remember the astronauts’ boots when they came back from the moon? 


DAVID SPERGEL: They’re covered with dust, and that’s what will happen to your telescope. 

IRA FLATOW: What’s the budget for this, Aki? 


IRA FLATOW: Give us a ballpark. 

AKI ROBERGE: We don’t– honest to God, we do not know what this costs yet, but that is part of the concept study. That is an analysis we are trying to do, like, right now. And in addition to that, as well, the decadal survey that David talked about, they will also do their own independent cost analysis of all the missions of all different kinds of sizes that are presented to them. So we’ll get sort of like– we’ll get two guesses at it. So that’ll be good. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: And I mean, do you worry, in the sort of context of the James Webb delays and the president, you know, suggesting to cut WFIRST, how people will receive sort of these– the next enormous mission? 

AKI ROBERGE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, astronomers are, I think, you know, they’re rightly nervous and concerned, you know. But that being said, you know, I still have to believe that NASA will be– has the capability, and will be allowed to do really big things. The ambitious things that only we can do. So you know, we just kind of– so the LUVOIR team, the philosophy really is sort of like, you know, just say what we need. Say what we really want to do this experiment, to study dozens and dozens of potentially habitable planets around hundreds of stars. And that’s our key goal. 

Although of course I should say, you know, LUVOIR would do, would revolutionize, like huge areas of general astronomy, as well. All the topics that Hubble covered and more, and also be a very powerful– surprisingly powerful– platform for observing the planets and moons inside the solar system. 

IRA FLATOW: She’s selling it. She’s selling it. This is Science Friday from WNYC studio. 

AKI ROBERGE: Oh, and but– 

IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead. 

AKI ROBERGE: –the HabEx. Yeah, HabEx is good too. 


DAVID SPERGEL: I think you have to think of these telescopes not only as doing great astronomy, but as a symbol of a great nation. I mean, I think the Hubble telescope is something we should be proud of as citizens. It’s something we built, and building something like LUVOIR or HabEx will not only do science, but be, in many ways, a signature of US leadership. 

IRA FLATOW: I think the Hubble probably did more for space than any other in recent memory. 

AKI ROBERGE: Yeah. Apparently, you know, by some metrics Hubble is the most productive scientific experiment ever built by mankind. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I’ve seen people with Pillars of Creation t-shirts, you know, with the big beautiful plumes. I mean, it’s just a pop culture phenomenon almost. But I guess one question that I was wondering is, you know, we love talking about these giant experiments– they’re just, you know, there’s so fun and they really sort of make our weaker imagination run wild. But is there concern about this funding going to these large missions and then you know, maybe leaving some of the smaller missions in the dust? 

AKI ROBERGE: Yeah. Sorry, go ahead David. 

DAVID SPERGEL: Yeah. This is something the decadal survey has always stressed– the need for balance. To build both the really big missions and these small, focused missions. Most of my career was spent on a small, focused mission, WMAP, that was able to do things like major measure of the age and composition of the universe. So little things– 

SARA SEAGER: And there’s many– yeah– and there’s also many small things now. A mission I’m involved with leading is TESS, it’s an exoplanet-finding mission that’s relatively small. I’ve got a CubeSat orbiting Earth that’s tiny. So there’s lots of things happening. The attention is somehow focused on these four big missions, because NASA is trying to do their best in fleshing them out in terms of technology, risk, and cost so we’re ready for the decadal. 

AKI ROBERGE: Yeah. I guess I would say, arguably, that is always a concern. But I think it’s a concern that’s overblown compared to the reality. I actually think if you look back at what’s actually happened, the balanced portfolio, NASA’s actually done it. You know, the large missions haven’t, you know, destroyed the ability to do small ones. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: And then I obviously have to plug the ground-based missions, as well. I mean astronomy is a full spectrum of different things. And there’s, you know, the giant– there’s three very large telescopes that are under construction, there’s the giant Magellan Telescope. I mean, we’re really– you know, this isn’t just one thing that’s going to help elucidate the universe, it’s just there’s a lot of technology required. 

IRA FLATOW: So you’re all confident, that’s good to see. We’ll have you back in about a year from now and see you how all this is working out. Aki Roberge is a study scientist for LUVOIR and a research astrophysicist at Nasa Goddard. David Spergel, director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute just down the block here. Professor of astrophysics at Princeton, Dr. Sara Seager, astrophysicist planetary scientist at MIT. And now, can’t forget my Buddy Ryan Mandelbaum, who is going on vacation right afterward. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I am. Literally, on Sunday I’m going to be on a plane. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re going to birdwatch. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: I’ll be birdwatching in northern Minnesota. I’m very excited. 

IRA FLATOW: The Christmas Birdwatch group. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: That’s right. 

IRA FLATOW: We’ll be covering that also. Thank you. 

RYAN MANDELBAUM: Yeah. Thanks for having us. 

IRA FLATOW: Ryan Mandelbaum, thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Copyright © 2018 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

Explore More

The Mass Extinction Detectives

The End Triassic extinction paved the way for the dinosaurs by killing their competition—in an event that looks like climate change today.

Read More