Five Science Megaprojects That Will Blow Your Mind
Artemis I launch
Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Five Science Megaprojects That Will Blow Your Mind

Harrison Davies October 23, 2022

We live in a world where scientific progress is happening at a breakneck speed – once just a pipe dream, in the next few years unlimited clean energy, a second home on the moon and even spotting life on other planets could be possible. The James Webb Space Telescope is just one of many science megaprojects coming to fruition in the next few years, each of which is set to push the boundaries of human capabilities in new and fascinating ways.

Here is why you should be excited about that, as well as four other science megaprojects you might not have heard of.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

Launched on Christmas Day 2021 – over two decades since its proposal – and at a cost of almost $9 billion, JWST is in space and sending back home astounding pictures of our cosmos. What you’d be forgiven for missing in all the excitement is why we’ve actually gone to such great lengths for these photo opportunities. 

The answer is that the JWST does not see like you and I. When we look across the room, we see objects in a mix of reflected red, green, and blue light. JWST can see colors from orange into the infrared, colors so red that we cannot see them. This allows it to look through dust clouds and see the stars living inside that we can’t see with the naked eye. In fact, this is why the telescope has to be so far from earth – our atmosphere blocks this light.

JWST can even help us look back in time. For us, light might as well travel instantly and we see things exactly as they are now. On the scale of the cosmos, light is pretty slow. And because that light takes a long time to reach the telescope, it sees how something looked when the light left it, which can be up to 13.5 billion years ago. 

For me, the most exciting way JWST looks at the Universe is by looking at the shadows that electrons leave on the light reaching the telescope – giving us a clue as to possible life on another planet. The scientific word for these shadows are absorption lines and they act like signatures in a logbook from all the molecules the light visited before it reached us.

Methane and Water are a couple of molecular signatures that would be exciting discoveries coming from a distant planet. These two really like to combine to form Carbon Dioxide, so much so that there really shouldn’t be any methane left over in another planet’s atmosphere. The only way we would be able to detect any methane at all is if it was being constantly produced, which is only possible through organic life. 

Now we have started looking if there is any life out there, it’s only a matter of time until we find it. To me this is by far the most exciting frontier in all of modern-day science. But if you are not as enthused by the prospect of finding our cosmic neighbors, I have four more science megaprojects that just might do the trick.

See also: The Future Of NASA After The ISS

Photo credit should read GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

An absolutely colossal nuclear fusion reactor currently under construction in the South of France, this science megaproject is set to cost $22 billion, with a first fusion ignition expected in 2025. It will represent a Herculean effort by the European Union and its eight partner Nations. 

In 2035, it is expected to be the first of its kind to create a sustained fusion reaction with the goal of producing five times as much energy as put in. Almost all of the energy available to us on Earth was first produced by fusion reactions in the sun and carried here by light. Whilst solar panels are the most direct way of harvesting this, wind turbines also use the effect the sun has on our atmosphere. Fossil fuels merely store the solar power gathered by plants, algae and plankton millions of years ago. 

If we could cut out the middleman and produce nuclear fusion for ourselves right here on Earth, we would have an unlimited source of clean, safe power. Fusion won’t be coming soon enough to solve our climate woes, but once it is up and running it should allow us to power anything we can dream of without having to worry about the effect on our climate.

Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)

Beginning construction in 2017 and at a cost of over $1 billion, the ELT is expected to be operational by 2027. An important detail about telescopes is that the bigger their mirrors, the more light they can collect from distant objects. This allows a larger mirror to see objects substantially further away or with much greater detail than a small mirror. 

Whilst the JWST can achieve a crystal clear view of the cosmos by viewing from outside our planet, the size of its mirror was dramatically limited by the size of the rocket used to carry it. The JWST was limited to a 25.4m^2 mirror, whereas the ELT is planned to utilize several segments combining into a whopping 978m^2 mirror. 

This will allow it to collect over thirty-eight times as much light as the JWST and should be able to capture images of planets orbiting other stars in detail we’ve never seen before. With such a powerful mirror, it is hoped that it will also be able to look much further than JWST and conclusively pin down the rate of our universe’s expansion, which has so far eluded accurate measurement. It may also be able to find evidence that the constants of our Universe have changed since the beginning of time, which may give us a hint as to how our Universe will one day end.

High Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC)

You may have heard of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, where the “god particle” (officially called the Higgs boson or just Higgs for short) was discovered in 2012. This was a big deal for our understanding of how the Universe holds itself together, but as with most physics-related dilemmas raised more questions than answers. 

Unfortunately, despite evidence having been found of the Higgs boson, it was so rare that it was almost impossible to study the nuances of its interactions – hence the need for an upgrade. At an expected cost of $860 million in materials alone, it is hoped that in 2028 the upgrade will raise the number of proton-on-proton collisions from 30 up to 140 per collision of its beams. 

This would dramatically increase the rate at which data can be collected and allow for rare or subtle particles like the Higgs to be studied in detail. Such experiments could reveal why the forces of the universe are arranged the way they are, or even shed light on the secrets of dark matter.

Space Launch System (SLS)

By far the most expensive of these science megaprojects to date is the Space Launch System currently reaching the end of its development under NASA. It officially began development in 2011 and was the successor of the Constellation Program, which was canceled in 2010. 

The constellation program was intended to put people back on the moon by 2019, but at an expected cost of $150 billion, it was deemed much too expensive. SLS was able to cut costs by repurposing technology developed for the space shuttle, including its four primary engines and side boosters. 

Despite numerous delays and a total development cost of $23 billion, the first of these rockets is currently set to launch on 14th November 2022. The mission is intended to prove that the system is safe for human use, and will fly around the moon before returning for a wet landing back home. 

It will carry two mannequins to test the effects of radiation and shielding on potential crew, as well as two Snoopy and Shaun the Sheep dolls. It will also carry ten CubeSats – small satellites – to be deployed over the course of the journey to the moon.

This is intended to be the first of many launches, with the goals of putting people on the moon, establishing a space station called Gateway in orbit, and building the first base on the surface. It is also hoped that these missions will allow us to develop the technology required for a successful manned mission to Mars.

Read next: The Future Of Space Is Female

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I’m Harrison and I’m currently in my third year of a Physics with Astrophysics masters at the University of Bristol. I spend a lot of my time gaming or playing D&D but I have a passion for all things space. My goal, through my writing, is to bring the wonders of our Universe down to earth for people to enjoy as much as I have.