In a Big Year for Telescopes, Much Peering Into Wallets

After its invention more than 400 years ago, telescopes are still recognized as the greatest marvels of civilization. This year, the U.S. plans to launch new telescopes and maintain older ones in hopes of discovering a larger Multiverse.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The big bang, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, extrasolar planets, brown dwarfs, quasars, pulsars, cosmic rays, the space-time continuum, galaxies and more galaxies. Do you see what Galileo started?

It's been 400 years since University of Padua professor Galileo Galilei, a precocious Italian of relatively modest achievement, had the bright idea of turning a modified spyglass toward the night sky. What he saw forever shattered the ancient Earth-centered cosmos.

Four centuries later, telescopes are among the greatest marvels of civilization, and they reveal daily that the universe is vaster, stranger and more violent than Galileo could have imagined. He incited what has become a compulsion to tunnel deeper into the sky, and the universe shows no sign of running out of surprises.

This is going to be a particularly big year for telescopes, and not just because it's officially the International Year of Astronomy, featuring astronomy conferences, space-related art projects, and telescopes flooding the market at $10 and up. There will also be breaking news.

In March, the United States will launch a new orbiting telescope, Kepler, with the goal of discerning Earth-like planets hidden in the starlight of distant suns. Then, in May, astronauts aboard the space shuttle will make a final trip to the nearly 20-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, inserting a new camera and other instruments to squeeze a little more magic out of the first of the space-based observatories.

But even if it's a Golden Age of Astronomy, it's also one of feverish competition, a scramble for dollars in a time when governments have bigger worries than black holes at the centers of galaxies.

NASA is astronomy's biggest supporter, funneling nearly $1.2 billion into astrophysics in its '09 budget. The National Science Foundation, the Energy Department, the military and nonprofit groups deliver hundreds of millions more. Even so, astronomers have a surplus of great ideas for telescopes and a shortage of funds. "As it is, we're waiting a decade and a half before we get even one of our highest-priority telescopes up and running," said Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the American Astronomical Society, which held its annual meeting here last week.

The astronomical community is launching a once-a-decade survey to recommend the next generation of instruments. Land-based telescopes will compete against space-based instruments. Infrared telescopes will throw elbows at radio telescopes. X-ray and gamma-ray telescopes will jockey for their slice of the pie.

Everything will be supersized. The biggest visible-light telescopes today have mirrors about 10 meters (32.8 feet) in diameter, but American astronomers want to build a telescope with a collecting mirror nearly 100 feet across: the Thirty Meter Telescope. Europeans hope to raise the bet with a 42-meter monster they call (in the slightly boastful parlance of astronomy) the European Extremely Large Telescope.

Radio telescopes on the drawing board are grander still, including one, the Square Kilometer Array, that would link a series of small dishes to create a collecting area of 1 million square meters.

Scheduled for launch in 2013 is NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, the designated successor to the Hubble. The JWST is capable of collecting some of the oldest, faintest light in the cosmos, emanated before the birth of galaxies, when the universe became transparent and light became free to move around -- which is almost all the way back to the beginning of time itself.

What would Galileo think of that?

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