NASA astrophysics: Peering into the future

John O'Meara of the W. M. Keck Observatory discusses the present and future of astrophysics at NASA at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation
20 May 2024
Karen Thomas
John O'Meara, chief scientist at the W.M. Keck Observatory
John O'Meara, chief scientist at the W.M. Keck Observatory, in Kamuela, Hawaii. Credit: AP/Jessie Wardarski

“The very first telescope I ever used was Keck I and it was a life changing experience,” says John O'Meara, chief scientist and deputy director of the W. M. Keck Observatory, which operates twin 10-meter telescopes on the summit of Maunakea on the island of Hawai’i. “I did not know if astrophysics would be my career path, but after that first experience with the most powerful facility on the planet, I was hooked.”

An observational astrophysicist and cosmologist, O'Meara’s primary responsibility at Keck is to act as the science interface between all stakeholders including Keck’s community of astronomers, instrument builders, federal funders, philanthropic funders, and governance leaders.  He also helps craft and execute the science strategy for the observatory.

What do you see as the most important aspect of your work at the Keck Observatory at this time?
Astronomy is entering a new age of massive surveys along with new telescopes with significantly larger apertures than Keck. For me, the most important thing I can do is ensure that Keck retains and evolves its technical leadership on the ground. This means helping to bring powerful new instrumentation to the observatory and leveraging the immense creativity of our community to return the maximum amount of science per second as possible

What is most exciting or surprising about your work? What are some of the challenges?
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it remains so: I really appreciate the networks of amazingly talented people. Being able to bring those people together to work on an instrument, an infrastructure challenge, or a new funding possibility always excites me. That, and seeing some of the best science in the world be enabled by my team at Keck. The key challenge for me is the scale, schedule, and cost of new instrumentation and capabilities for Keck – or any other observatory, for that matter. We have to adopt new methodologies and new funding strategies if we are to succeed

The abstract to your talk notes: “The goals of [NASA’s] Astrophysics Division are to understand how the Universe works, understand how we got here and to address the question, are we alone?” How far have we come in our understanding of the Universe?
The advances have been staggering. When I was a child, we had knowledge of nine planets (then we took one away). My kids are growing up learning that we know of thousands of planets around other stars, and can infer billions more. Their kids will grow up knowing if some of those other worlds harbor life, if we can continue on the path we’ve set with the Decadal Surveys and other strategic plans. Over my career alone, we’ve discovered not just exoplanets, but also the existence of dark energy, and have pushed back our ability to observe stars and galaxies to within a few hundred million years since the beginning of the universe.   

What do you see as the future of the Astrophysics Division (APD) at NASA? What would you like to see?
APD operates an amazing suite of missions that inspires the world and drives science forward. With new missions on the horizon across a range of scales from cubesats to HWO, APD can continue that tradition of discovery. In the future, I see the missions from across all of NASA science working more closely together. The Universe is a complicated thing, and the discoveries we will make in the future, particularly as we try to understand life’s story, will require tools form across the NASA portfolio, and from facilities on the ground as partners. 

How will the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HWO) help in our understanding of the universe? What might we learn from HWO?
HWO will fundamentally transform our understanding of the Universe and our place in it. It will provide the capability to image and obtain spectra of the atmospheres of planets similar to Earth around Sun-like stars nearby, and allow us to directly search for the fingerprints of life.

If made powerful enough, HWO will not answer the question, ‘Are we alone?’ It will answer the question, ‘How alone are we?’ By covering the same wavelengths as Hubble, including the essential ultraviolet but with much larger aperture and more powerful instrumentation, we will probe the history of atoms across the majority of cosmic time in stars, galaxies, and the regions in between to understand how matter moves through the universe. In essence HWO will not just search for life, it will tell life’s story.

How will the Science, Technology, Architecture Review Team (START) and Technical Analysis Group (TAG) work with HWO?
At this stage, HWO needs to determine the trade space that we must explore before defining an architecture. The START and TAG will take the key science drivers and understand how those can push the architecture of the observatory. We will not be making decisions about what HWO will look like or how it will operate in the end. Instead, we will be handing over the set of trades that must be explored and the technology roadmaps that are needed to build HWO best.

What would you like attendees to learn from your talk at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation?
I hope attendees are inspired by the vision that HWO represents and are excited to be a part of it. Strategic capabilities like HWO take a huge team of scientists, engineers, and many others across NASA, academia, and industry to come to fruition. They also take resolve across decades. I hope the attendees want be part of that resolve as well, given the challenges ahead for all science funding.


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