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Time to think big: a call for a giant space telescope

Last Updated on Monday, 23 June 2014 14:50
Published on Sunday, 22 June 2014 09:30

In the nearly 25 years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), astronomers and the public alike have enjoyed ground-breaking views of the cosmos and the suite of scientific discoveries that followed. The successor to HST, the James Webb Space Telescope should launch in 2018 but will have a comparatively short lifetime.

Now Prof Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester is looking to the future. In his talk at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) in Portsmouth on Tuesday 24 June, he calls for governments and space agencies around the world to back the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST), an instrument that would give scientists a good chance of detecting hints of life on planets around other stars.

Barstow 20m under construction smallAn artist’s concept of the ATLAST telescope under construction in space. This design has a segmented mirror 20 metres across. Credit: NASA/STScI. Click for a full-resolution imageATLAST is currently a concept under development in the USA and Europe. Scientists and engineers envisage a telescope with a mirror as large as 20 m across that like HST would detect visible light and also operate from the far-ultraviolet to the infrared parts of the spectrum. It would be capable of analysing the light from planets the size of the Earth in orbit around other nearby stars, searching for features in their spectra such as molecular oxygen, ozone, water and methane that could suggest the presence of life. It might also be able to see how the surfaces of planets change with the seasons.

Within the vision “Cosmic birth to living Earths”, ATLAST would study star and galaxy formation in high definition, constructing the history of star birth in detail and establishing how intergalactic matter was and is assembled into galaxies over billions of years.

If it goes ahead, ATLAST could be launched around 2030. Before this can happen, there are technical challenges to overcome such as enhancing the sensitivities of detectors and increasing the efficiencies of the coatings on the mirror segments. Such a large structure may also need to be assembled in space before deployment rather than launching on a single rocket. All of this means that a decision to construct the telescope needs to happen soon for it to go ahead.

Prof Barstow is the President of the Royal Astronomical Society, but is speaking in a personal capacity. He sees ATLAST as an ambitious but extraordinary project. He commented:

"Since antiquity human beings have wondered whether we really are alone in the universe or whether there are other oases of life. This question is one of the fundamental goals of modern science and ATLAST could finally allow us to answer it.

"The time is right for scientific and space agencies around the world, including those in the UK, to take a bold step forward and to commit to this project."

 

Media contacts

NAM Press Office: +44 (0) 02392 845176, +44 (0)2392 845177, +44 (0)2392 845178

Dr Robert Massey
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
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Anita Heward
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243
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Dr Keith Smith
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Science contact

Prof Martin Barstow
University of Leicester
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An ISDN line is available for radio interviews. To request its use please contact Sophie Hall via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Images and captions


An artist’s concept of the ATLAST telescope under construction in space. This design has a segmented mirror 20 metres across. Credit: NASA/STScI


An artist’s impression of an Earth-like planet in orbit around another star. Credit: ESO

 

Notes for editors

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) will bring together more than 600 astronomers, space scientists and solar physicists for a conference running from 23 to 26 June in Portsmouth. NAM 2014, the largest regular professional astronomy event in the UK, will be held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP), Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial physics (MIST) and UK Cosmology (UKCosmo) meetings. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Portsmouth. Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website and via Twitter.

The University of Portsmouth (http://www.port.ac.uk) is a top-ranking university in a student-friendly waterfront city. It’s in the top 50 universities in the UK, in The Guardian University Guide League Table 2014 and is ranked in the top 400 universities in the world, in the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013. Research at the University of Portsmouth is varied and wide ranging, from pure science – such as the evolution of galaxies and the study of stem cells – to the most technologically applied subjects – such as computer games design. Our researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and with the public, to develop new insights and make a difference to people’s lives. Follow the University of Portsmouth on Twitter.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter via @royalastrosoc

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar. It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities for example in the area of astronomy, the European Southern Observatory. Follow STFC on Twitter.