In the coming decade and beyond, new telescopes on mountaintops and in orbit will reveal the birth of galaxies, locate (possibly) habitable worlds orbiting other stars, and track asteroids that might impact Earth.
2017: Transiting Exoplanet Survey (TESS)
An array of wide-field telescopes known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey (TESS) will launch in 2017 to conduct the first space-based survey of the entire sky in the search for habitable planets orbiting other stars. TESS will search for planets that pass between Earth and their own stars, causing a change in the observed light from the star – what’s called the transit method.
2018: James Webb Space Telescope
Because it takes about 13 billion years for light to reach Earth from the most distant galaxies in the universe, those images provide a glimpse into the universe’s past. A million miles above Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope will study the oldest light in the universe to understand how galaxies formed after the Big Bang.
As cosmic objects move farther away, our view of their light shifts toward the red end of the spectrum; light from very distant objects is shifted into the infrared spectrum, which makes infrared telescopes like Webb ideal for studying the oldest objects in space.
2020: Giant Magellan Telescope
With a 24.5-meter (80-foot) primary mirror, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), to be built in the mountains of Chile, will be able to collect more light than any existing telescope. Its primary mirror consists of six 8.4-meter mirrors arranged around a 7.7-meter central mirror. With their combined light-gathering capability, GMT will study some of the most distant objects in the universe.
2021: Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
From the mountains of Chile, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will map the entire sky rapidly an in greater depth than existing projects, like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). With its 3.2-gigapixel camera’s wide field of view, LSST will scan the whole sky twice a week in a series of panoramic shots. An 8.4-meter primary mirror gives it a large light-gathering area, so LSST can detect very faint objects in those panoramas; for a given area of sky, LSST’s images will reveal 10 times as many galaxies as SDSS.
2030: Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope
The Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST) is a NASA project currently in the conceptual stage, but it offers a glimpse at the next generation of telescopes. Engineers have designed several models for ATLAST with primary mirrors between 8-meters and 16-meters in diameter, the smallest of which still would be larger than the largest current space telescopes and 2000 times more sensitive than Hubble, with a resolution five to 10 times better than the James Webb Space Telescope.
Ray Villard of the Space Telescope Science Institute describes ATLAST as a “life finder.” It will analyze the spectra of distant planets to detect water vapor, ozone, methane, and other possible signatures of life. ATLAST will also study the universe’s origins, investigate dark matter, and probe other mysteries we haven’t even discovered yet.