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Astronomers vie to make biggest telescope
by Stefanie at 2:10 pm EST, Feb 5, 2008

Just the names of many of the proposed observatories suggest an arms race: the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, which was downsized from the OverWhelmingly Large Telescope. Add to those three big ground observatories a new super eye in the sky, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013.


Current telescopes are able to look back only about 1 billion years in time. But the new telescopes will be so powerful that they should be able to gaze back to a couple of hundred million years after the Big Bang, which scientists believe happened 13.7 billion years ago. That's where all the action is.

Overwhelmingly cool!

The Giant Magellan Telescope. A partnership of six U.S. universities, an Australian college, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington will place the telescope in Las Campanas, Chile, around 2016. The plan is for an 80-foot mirror. The cost is around $500 million.

The Thirty Meter Telescope. The California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy are aiming for a telescope with about a 98-foot mirror by 2018. No site has been chosen. The cost is about $780 million.

The European Extremely Large Telescope. A partnership of European countries called the European Southern Observatory already has telescopes in Chile and is aiming for a new one with a mirror of 138 feet, scaled back from initial plans of 328 feet. The Europeans are aiming for a 2018 completion, but have not chosen a specific location yet. The cost would be $1.17 billion.

NASA's $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope, designed to travel 900,000 miles beyond Earth's orbit, is not faced with the atmospheric distortion of ground telescopes. Still, it will use its own version of adaptive optics. Because of temperature fluctuations in the cold of space, the telescope will have to adjust the shape of its mirrors automatically. Webb's mirror, which is 21/2 times bigger than Hubble's, has 18 segments.

While I love the concept of the Webb telescope, a $4,500,000,000.00 project seems a bit of a luxury for a nation with a debt of over $9,200,000,000,000.00, especially when the President just submitted a budget proposal of $3,100,000,000,000.00, including deficit spending in the amount of $400,000,000,000.00. I'm supportive of scientific research, but at some point during my lifetime, we'll have to use Conway chained arrow notation or Knuth's up-arrow notation to discuss the national debt.

At least we'll have some pretty pictures. :)

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