Spaceflight Insider

Largest space telescope ever fielded, LUVOIR, could aid in search for alien life

LUVOIR concept

The concept design of the LUVOIR space telescope would place it at the L2 Lagrange point, where a 15.1-meter primary mirror would unfold and begin observing the Universe, bringing us untold scientific and astronomical riches. Image Credit: NASA / LUVOIR (spacecraft); Serge Brunier (background).

In terms of space exploration and information, NASA has had to answer the question of “What is next?” The agency continues to work to answer this question with new and ever-more complex programs. Spacecraft such as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have and are aiming to continue revolutionizing humanity’s knowledge of the Cosmos. However, there is another possible answer to “What is next?” – LUVOIR.

If everything continues to go as NASA currently has planned, the JWST should launch in the Spring of 2019 atop an Ariane 5 rocket from the spaceport located in Kourou, French Guiana.

With a beryllium primary mirror that measures roughly 21 feet (6.5 meters), the JWST is optimized for infrared observations. It should have some seven times collecting power that Hubble has. The JWST’s mirror is made of 18 separate segments that unfold and take shape after launch.

It is hoped that the JWST will be able to record extremely faint signals from very young galaxies (a feat that has yet to be reached). To accomplish this, the telescope comes equipped with instruments such as the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), and the Fine Guidance Sensors / Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS).

When it comes to space exploration, one size does not fit all, and no one mission can answer all of the questions that science has when it comes to the Universe. As such, a newly proposed telescope will work to solve some of the other numerous questions our species have about the Universe.

The Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR) is being considered for a possible launch sometime in the 2030 time frame. The spacecraft would be a sort of hybrid between the Hubble Space Telescope and the JWST.

Comparison of LUVIOR / HST observation of 'Planet Nine'

If the hypothetical “Planet Nine” is discovered, most ground-based telescopes or even current/future space-based telescopes will be barely able to image a single pixel’s worth of it. Whereas LUVOIR will be able, even at the planet’s great distance, to reveal intricate structure on the surface of the world. Image Credit: NASA / LUVOIR concept team

As was the case with the evolution from Hubble to JWST, LUVOIR could see a substantial growth regarding the mirror that this new telescope would use. While the JWST is being prepped to use a 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror, LUVOIR’s mirror would measure some 49 feet (15 meters) in diameter.

This large mirror means that it would have 40 times the light gathering power and six times the resolution of Hubble. Although it is projected to be in a different optical configuration, the mirror will be segmented similarly to the JWST and assembled in space.

LUVOIR would be able to see more galaxies that are not only farther away but also farther into our galaxy – the Milky Way – including distant stars, exoplanets, intergalactic gas, and the imprints of dark matter.

Unlike HST, which could only see bright galaxies, LUVOIR should be able to see both bright and dim ones, opening up new areas in space sciences, including what many people view as the “holy grail” of space exploration – the search for extraterrestrial life.

LUVOIR might be able to achieve this via the search for molecular biosignatures, which could, possibly, aid in the discovery of life on another planet possible. The micro-shutter array on LUVOIR’s spectroscopic instrument should allow it to take an image of many objects at once and at the same depth of HST but 40 times faster.

Given the size of LUVOIR, it would require a launch vehicle capable of super-heavy-lift missions. One option would be to utilize NASA’s new super-heavy-lift Space Launch System, which should be operational for several years by the time LUVOIR is ready for flight.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is currently scheduled to be launched in 2019. The JWST is being prepped to use a 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror, LUVOIR's mirror would measure some 49 feet (15 meters) in diameter. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is currently scheduled to be launched in 2019. The JWST will use a 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror, LUVOIR’s mirror would measure some 49 feet (15 meters) in diameter. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Author Bio: Tessamarie Benitez is a freshman at the Florida Institute of Technology majoring in astronomy and astrophysics. She currently resides at Florida Tech and enjoys nature, writing, and studying about space. Benitez has competed in various science-related competitions as well as writing-related tournaments. Benitez’s primary interest is in the physics of black holes. Benitez contributes to SpaceFlight Insider per an internship program that SFI has with the Florida Institute of Technology.




Founded at the very dawn of the Space Race in 1958, the Florida Institute of Technology is the only independent, technological university located in the Southeast. Times Higher Education ranks Florida Tech in the Top 200 Universities in the World. The university has been designated a Tier One Best National University in U.S. News & World Report, and is one of just nine schools in Florida lauded by the 2014 Fiske Guide to Colleges. The university offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs. Fields of study include science, engineering, aeronautics, business, humanities, mathematics, psychology, communication and education.

Reader Comments

Bradley M. Peterson

I am the community co-chair of the LUVOIR Science and Technology Definition Team, and I want to thank you for sharing the excitement of LUVOIR! I must note, however, that the current plan for LUVOIR is that it will autonomously deploy in a manner similar to JWST. Its 15-m primary is the largest segmented mirror that can be folded into a Space Launch System (SLS) Block 2 fairing. Assembly in space is not necessarily required, although it is not precluded either. But autonomous deployment is what we’re studying now.

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