The 2020 Astrophysics Decadal Survey, “Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s” (Astro2020), lays out an ambitious long-term vision for a new fleet of multi-wavelength Future Great Observatories (FGOs) in space. The first, which NASA is currently focused on, is intended to be an infrared/optical/ultraviolet observatory, designed to search for life outside the solar system and perform transformative astrophysics.
Building an observatory with such capabilities will require some of the most advanced technology ever flown in space. Therefore, Astro2020 recommended NASA establish a “Great Observatory Mission and Technology Maturation Program” (GOMAP) before approving a new flagship telescope for formulation. GOMAP will evolve technologies that NASA has invested in and implement lessons learned from past large-scale space observatory missions. NASA will also draw upon input from the broader scientific community to help establish the mission’s fundamental science goals and how best to pursue them.
NASA is further prioritizing its long-running search for life in the universe and laying the groundwork for its next flagship astrophysics mission after the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (slated to launch by May 2027). Currently referred to as the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO), this is a concept for a mission that would search for and characterize habitable planets beyond our solar system. HWO would be the first NASA mission designed specifically to look for signs of life on potentially habitable exoplanets, all while contributing to our broader understanding of the cosmos.
Building upon studies conducted for two earlier mission concepts called the Large Ultraviolet Optical Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) and Habitable Exoplanets Observatory (HabEx), HWO would be designed specifically to identify potentially habitable planets around other stars, closely examining their atmospheres to determine if life could possibly exist.
The mission’s main objective would be to identify and directly image at least 25 potentially habitable worlds. It would then use spectroscopy to search for chemical “biosignatures” in these planets’ atmospheres, including gasses such as oxygen and methane which could serve as critical evidence for life. The observatory would introduce new capabilities to study the universe with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, giving us important new insights into the evolution of cosmic structures, including how galaxies form and develop over time.
GOMAP will focus on several key early activities to ensure future flagship telescopes, starting with HWO, are developed on a predictable cost and schedule while minimizing risks of overruns. GOMAP’s coordinated activities will ensure the scope of HWO is clearly defined, will advance the technologies that will enable HWO to deliver its revolutionary science, and plan additional steps that may be taken for long-term preparation. Two groups will guide the GOMAP activities for HWO: a Science, Technology, Architecture Review Team (START) and a Technical Assessment Group (TAG). Each will liaise with the broader science, technology, and engineering community to help establish the concept’s fundamental science goals and explore how best to pursue them. NASA had solicited self-nominations for the START (nominations were accepted until June 5, 2023). The planning teams will convene their first meetings Oct. 31 - Nov. 2, 2023, in the Washington, D.C., area.
Additional activities are being planned to reduce cost and schedule risk. NASA is currently assessing options to start other groups to aid those efforts. Please stay tuned to this website, which will be updated with more information as it becomes available.