Future of Astronomy

What does the future of astronomy hold in an age fraught with excessive light pollution, a waning public interest in space exploration and a seriously impacted budget? The position held by many astronomers both amateur and professional alike is one of cautious optimism. The current shift in astronomy is encouraging the private sector to move in with the ultimate goal of commercialisation both spaceflight and space exploration and as most of us know where there’s money to be made there’s progress.

Before February of this year the immediate future of astronomy lay with the constellation programme and the long awaited return to our closest neighbour the moon. The programme was to take us back to the lunar surface by 2020 with an array of exciting new rockets. Unfortunately President Obama deemed the project too costly and is now encouraging an arena of healthy competition between private space companies to get a human being landed on a nearby asteroid of which many different candidates are still being considered.

Companies like Airlaunch LLC, ARCASPACE and Orbital Sciences Corp have all received funding to produce technologies that will make the first manned exploration of an asteroid a reality. The success of this mission could take astronomy yet further into an exciting future.

When man inevitably takes his first tentative steps towards landing on the red planet it will benefit us hugely to be able to land and possibly set up a moon base on one of Mars’ two orbiting satellites Phobos and Deimos. This will enable longer term missions to be undertaken and a much more thorough exploration of what will become the first planet other than the earth to be set foot on by man.

The term Astronomy not only encompasses the exploration of space but the observation of it from afar. We are living in an incredibly exciting time from this point of view, the near future of Astronomy has never looked so inspiring.

The Kepler telescope was launched on March 7th 2009. It’s job is to keep an eye on 100,000 stars in the constellation of Cygnus over a three year period looking for tell tale dips in the stars light that indicate a planet is orbiting nearby.

The kepler team have already detected large planets close to their stars termed “Hot Jupiters”, these are the easiest planets to detect which explains the abundance of them in current data.

What has eluded the team so far however is Earths sister, a small rocky world in a similar orbit to Earth around a similar star. The scientists involved with Kepler say that if such planets exist out there in the cosmos we will find them within the next three years.

Once a planet orbiting a star like ours at a similar distance is discovered teams of astronomers will study the planet in unprecedented detail. In the near future astronomers will use spectrography (the study of light waves) much like they do today but with far more sensitive equipment, to deduce everything they can about the planet from the composition of its atmosphere to the temperature and even whether or not photosynthesis is taking place on the planets surface or whether a potential civilization is producing greenhouse gases!

Once suitable candidates for Earths closest relatives have been announced it will then be up to telescopes like the European Extremely Large Telescope (due to be built in 2018) to attempt to directly image the planets in question in an attempt to understand as much as we can before we attempt to go there in the more distant future.

The future of Astronomy is very much a question of two parts, what is actually happening in the near future and what may be speculated about happening in the far off future? one may expect the former to be somewhat duller than the latter but this simply isn’t the case.

There’s so much to look forward to coming up in the next ten years such as the launch of the giant webb telescope (termed Hubbles successor) and the use of adaptive optics in large observatory telescopes (manipulating a telescopes mirror to compensate for the distortions imposed by the Earths own atmosphere) not to mention the development of what is at present still quite a young science, exoplanet detection. As the sophistication of technology seems to be accelerating without an end in sight, the following 10 years should be even more exciting than the next decade. In short things can only get better!