More Powerful Telescopes on Horizon

Better to make incremental improvements in size, thus the 30-meter proposal, which Nelson estimates could be built for 5 percent of the cost of a 100-meter telescope. No decision has been made on where the UC-Cal Tech observatory would be located, or when it might be operational.

Costs of the OWL may not discourage the Europeans, however. After languishing in the backwaters of astronomy for several decades, a consortium of eight nations in Europe is building a colossal observatory consisting of four 8.2-meter telescopes and three smaller ones, all of which are designed to work together as a single telescope.

That complex, located atop an 8,000-foot-peak in northern Chile, is expected to be operational within about five years. Known officially as the Very Large Telescope (where’s their imagination?) at Paranal Observatory, that facility is viewed by its creators as the telescope for the 21st century.

It won’t displace the Keck, of course, because each is limited to the hemisphere in which it is located. The Keck studies the northern sky, and the VLT will study the Southern Hemisphere.

That limitation won’t apply to the telescope that is at the top of the wish list for astronomers in the United States. In “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the new Millennium,” a report issued earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences, astronomers placed a new space telescope at the very top of their list of priorities.

Grander Plans in Space

The Next Generation Space Telescope would be 100 to 600 times as sensitive as the Hubble Space Telescope, and two to three times as large. The astronomers would also like a fleet of four space-borne telescopes that could search for other planets.

The search for planets seems to be at the top of nearly everyone’s list. It is clearly the driving force, or at least the economic justification, for many telescopes now on the drawing boards.

Space telescopes more powerful than the Hubble, for example, might be able to detect faint clues at infrared wavelengths of planets that have conditions necessary to support life. Organic material, for example, emits heat which can be detected at infrared wavelengths.

That would take the search for extraterrestrial life to a new level, looking for unambiguous evidence instead of eavesdropping in hopes of picking up some kind of electromagnetic signal.

Of course, much more is at stake than simply looking for other planets, even those that might have life. The Hubble expanded our horizons enormously, peering into regions of space that we had never seen before. But it also showed its limitations. The earliest phase of the universe, when stars and galaxies were just beginning to form, is so far away in an expanding universe that they are too faint for even the mighty Hubble to study.

It’s all pretty amazing when you realize that it has been 400 years since Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. That discovery revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos, and got Galileo in a heap of trouble.

He did all that, by the way, with a lens that was about one inch in diameter.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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