ON THE HORIZON
Missions set to launch, or do their most important work, in the coming years
While 2019 sees many space projects doing great work, there are plenty of others getting ready for their big moment in the years to come. The most famous of these – and the one that’s been beset by numerous delays and controversies – is NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The agency announced in June last year that the orbiting infrared observatory – with a huge 6.5m-wide segmented mirror – will have its launch pushed back once again to late March 2021. But many astronomers are willing to wait, given the potential for truly ground-breaking science from the telescope. By observing at infrared wavelengths, the JWST will be able to peer much farther back in time than even the venerable Hubble. It should also revolutionise exoplanet science and give researchers clues about other important eras of the Universe, like when the first stars lit up their surroundings.
Another mission being readied for lift-off in the next few years is ESA’s Solar Orbiter, due to launch towards the Sun in February 2020. The spacecraft has been largely built by UK engineers and scientists, with contributions from other European nations, and is equipped with a range of instruments for examining our star’s atmosphere and solar wind. In order to make its observations, the probe will position itself in an elliptical orbit that will see it – at times – looping around the Sun within the orbit of Mercury, so it will be equipped with a heat shield to protect its electronics from the high temperatures.
Looking further into the future, there’s also the 2021 launch of ESA’s Euclid mission, which will study the enigmatic phenomena ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’ by accurately measuring the acceleration of the universe. So space fans can be guaranteed of a brimming schedule for many years to come.
Solar Orbiter, the ultimate sun seeker
The latest estimated cost for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is $9.6 billion