If you have any 3-D glasses lying around, you might want to dust them off for what NASA has planned in the coming years.
The space agency is just two years away from the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a multi-billion dollar optical/infrared space observatory in development since 1996. While not as large as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST has a primary mirror with a collecting area about five times greater. This will allow it to observe some of the most distant events and objects in the universe, including potential life-hosting exoplanets.
When the JWST is placed into orbit around the sun (roughly 930,000 miles from Earth) sometime after October 2018, humanity will have access to two of the highest-resolution space telescopes in history. Hubble, which is expected to be retired around 2021, will be located from JWST at an average distance of 1 million miles. Because of this separation, both telescopes pointed at the same location, will be able to offer 3-D stereoscopic vision of celestial objects for the first time.
That's right: Scientists will soon have access to the world's most powerful space binoculars.
A diagram showing how the two space telescopes could function similarly to our own stereoscopic vision. (Photo: Joel D. Green)
In a new paper published last month in arXiv, researchers outline how the two space telescopes could be leveraged to pull off unprecedented views of the universe.
“This was never possible before because we never had two telescopes with this kind of resolution in space at the same time,” co-author Joel Green of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, told New Scientist.
Examples of objects that could benefit from 3-D imaging include the orbits of Jupiter's moons, Saturn's rings, the approach of an incoming comet, and surface features on Mars. Like real binoculars on Earth, the 3-D benefit is only realized when the space telescopes are maximally separated and the targets as close as possible.
“This technique would be great for helping non-experts grasp the size of astronomical objects,” Adam Kraus, of the University of Texas in Austin, added to New Scientist.
With the Hubble Space Telescope currently funded for operations only through 2021, the researchers hope to apply their 3-D imaging technique as soon as possible. "We anticipate several opportunities during an anticipated 2 yr mission overlap," they wrote.