The United States plans in 1983 to orbit a telescope haf as big as the largest telescope on earth that will peer almost the edge of space and the beginnings of time.
Included in the new former President Ford sent to Congress, the $435 million telescope, if approved, would be carried from the earth by astronauts manning the resuable space shuttle. The 20,000-pound telescope would left unattended in space more than 300 miles above the earth, where there is no atmosphere to blur or obscure the planets, stars and galaxies that it is designed to observe for 10 to 20 years.
Without the blurring of the atmosphere," said Dr. John Bahcall of Princeton Study, where the idea was conceived, "we will be able to see things that are 10 times smaller than we see now or 10 times farther away. It will be like reading the writing on a quarter that we could only tell was round before."
Astronomers believe that even the world's biggest telescope on Mt. Palomar has seen no farther than halfway across the universe. Because it will be outside the atmosphere, the space telescope will see things almost at the edge of the universe, though it's half the size of the 200-inch Palomar. This means the telescope will see almost to the beginning of time, since the most distant stars are believed to be those born in the first moments of creation.
Some of the most distant objects viewed with earthbound telescopes are the mysterious quasars, which radiate thousands of times the energy that ordinary stars of the same size put out.
"We don't know whether quasars are galaxies in birth, dying galaxies or not galaxies at all," Princeton's Dr. Bahcall said. "We don't even know if they are galaxies associated with the quasars because we can't see them (the galaxies). What will be able to do with the space telescope is see all the fuzz around the quasars, which should answer lots of our questions."
Besides peering at quasars, the space telescope will be used to observe stars that astronomers believe are just being born. The suspicion is that many new stars lie in the Orion Nebula, where the hottest and youngest stars have long been observed.
Plans are that, once an earthbound telescope catches what looks like a star being born, signals would be sent to the space telescope aiming it at the new star. Once the space telescope confirms it has found a new star, telescopes all over the world could track it to read its temperature, tell whether a galactic gas cloud surrounds it had even identify the organic chemical constituents of the cloud.
In addition to the most distant objects, the space telescope will examine some of the closest bodies in the heavens. Neverby galaxies will be mapped, and distances to the nearest stars and between the nearest stars will be measured accurately for the first time.
Besides optics half the size of the Palomar's the space telescope will be equipped with lenses and instruments to let it look in the ultraviolet and the infrared parts of the spectrum. Most of the infrared and all of the ultraviolet are denied to earthbound telescopes because the atmosphere blocks them out.
"It 's like being bale to see only purple or pink," Dr. Bahcall said. "You'd have an incomplete picture of things, never being able to see trees, people and most of the houses they live in."
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans today to ask space contractors to bid on building the space telescope.
The telescope will get its pictures back to earth through another satelite, which will be positioned in stationary orbit above the United States. It will serve as radio relay for the space telescope.
The space agency plans to send astronauts in the space shuttle to rendezvous with the telescope every five years to replace worn-out or damaged parts.