Proposal for a 14-Meter Infrared Space Telescope by Astronomers

A team of astronomers from the United States and Europe are proposing a new infrared space telescope, tentatively named the Single Aperture Large Telescope for Universe Studies (SALTUS), to help us better understand the origins of the universe. Due to the universe’s vast size and continuous expansion, light from its earliest galaxies has been stretched into the infrared spectrum, providing clues about its origins.

Infrared telescopes such as SALTUS are particularly effective at observing forming planets. Dense environments like protoplanetary disks are usually opaque to most light, but infrared light can reveal what’s happening within these planet-forming regions. The dust within these environments absorbs light, emitting and scattering it in the infrared, a phenomenon that optical telescopes struggle with. However, SALTUS is designed specifically to handle this.

The proposed SALTUS would differ from the powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). While the JWST has four instruments covering an infrared frequency range from 600 to 28,500 nanometers (from the near-infrared to the mid-infrared), SALTUS would cover 34 to 660 micrometers, which is within the far-infrared range. This range is currently unachievable by any existing space or ground-based observatory.

Infrared telescopes, including SALTUS, need to be kept cool to detect IR light. They use sunshades and cryogenic coolers to maintain low temperatures. The longer the wave of infrared light, the cooler the sensor needs to be. The baseline mission length for SALTUS is five years, limited by the lifespan of the active cryogenic cooling systems.

During its five-year mission, SALTUS will use its 14-meter primary mirror and two instruments: the SAFARI-Lite spectrometer and the HiRX (High-Resolution receiver). These will enable SALTUS to complement the observing capabilities of the JWST and the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA).

One of the key questions SALTUS aims to address is how habitability develops during planetary formation. To do this, SALTUS plans to trace the elements carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen in 1,000 different protoplanetary disks. This ability to identify various molecular and atomic species and specific lattice modes of ice and some minerals is a capability no existing telescope possesses.

Another critical question is how galaxies form and evolve. SALTUS will measure how galaxies form and gain mass, from the universe’s earliest galaxies to the present day. It will also investigate the co-evolution of galaxies and their supermassive black holes.

The SALTUS concept is designed in response to the 2020 Decadal Survey and NASA’s Astrophysical Roadmap. It directly responds to NASA’s 2023 Astrophysics Probe Explorer (APEX) solicitation. The authors of the SALTUS proposal believe it is well-suited to serving the current and future needs of the astronomical community.

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