The LUVOIR space telescope could study exoplanets thanks to a 15-meter mirror
– News of April 28, 2019 –
The LUVOIR space telescope (Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor) is currently only a project. This is one of the four concepts studied to become one of NASA’s future big telescopes. LUVOIR would work primarily on visible and infrared light, such as the James Webb Space Telescope. The LUVOIR space telescope would be placed in orbit around the L2 Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system. LUVOIR would look like the James Webb Space Telescope, but bigger.
Two versions of the LUVOIR project are currently being studied. The first version is equipped with a primary mirror of 8 meters, and the second version is equipped with a primary mirror of 15 meters. This gigantic mirror would be segmented like the mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope. It would benefit from an active optics system and a strict control of the temperature. With such an image resolution, the possible observations would be incredible. LUVOIR would be equipped with a powerful coronograph, which would take pictures of exoplanets, and even determine the chemical composition of their atmosphere or surface. This would search for chemical traces indicating the presence of life. Almost every other area of astronomy could also benefit from such a space telescope.
But the LUVOIR space telescope is a very long-term project. If selected, it won’t be launched before 2039. The other three proposals for space telescopes are more specialized but nevertheless very interesting. The ORIGIN space telescope would work in far-infrared with a 6-meter mirror. Its optics would be cooled to only 4 degrees above absolute zero. The LYNX space telescope would observe space with X-ray, allowing it to study the most energetic events in the universe. The fourth project called HabEx would use a huge sunshade to look for habitable exoplanets.
Although it will be a long time before any of these missions are launched, NASA selection should be much faster. One of these four projects could be selected as early as this year or at the latest in 2020.
Image by NASA / LUVOIR concept team, Serge Brunier