Beyond JWST: the Next Steps in Ultraviolet–Optical–Near-IR Space Astronomy

Workshop Report

Marc Postman,

On March 26–27, 2009, over a hundred astronomers from around the nation and the world met at the Institute to discuss future directions in ultraviolet–optical–near-infrared (UVOIR) space astrophysics in the era after the James Webb Space Telescope. Information about the meeting—the program, list of participants, and videos and electronic versions of all the presentations and posters—can be found at the conference website.

What emerged from this meeting was an inspiring narrative of where modern astrophysics—enabled by advanced observations from space—can lead human discovery.

Space science stands at an exciting and challenging threshold. Within the next two decades NASA could have the capabilities to search for life on exoplanets orbiting other stars, and to observe with unprecedented clarity the complex processes that drive the evolution and structure of galaxies. For the first time in human history, we have within our grasp the ability to unravel how, across the vast expanse of cosmic time, our corner of the universe became a safe harbor for the emergence of life. We may be able to answer the profound question, “Are we alone?”

Observational astrophysics is a photon-limited field. The paradigm-shifting discoveries in the 2010–2030 era will require ever more capable instruments and facilities. The next big steps—both for characterizing extrasolar planets and for pursuing the fields of star and galaxy formation and evolution—require observations at high angular resolution of sources with flux densities as low as a few to tens of nano-Janskys. As hallmarks of this convergence, the key photometric and spectroscopic signatures for the search for life, for founding a comprehensive theory of star formation, and for understanding interactions between galaxies and the cosmic web, all lie in the UVOIR wavelength range 0.1–2.5 microns.