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Telescope race builds on future of grand visions.

Byline: Seth Borenstein The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - A telescope arms race is taking shape around the world. Astronomers are drawing up plans for the biggest, most powerful instruments ever constructed, capable of peering far deeper into the universe - and further back in time - than ever before.

The building boom, which is expected to play out over the next decade and cost billions of dollars, is being driven by technological advances that afford unprecedented clarity and magnification. Some scientists say it will be much like switching from regular TV to high-definition.

In fact, the super-size telescopes will yield even finer pictures than the Hubble Space Telescope Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the first large optical orbiting observatory. Built from 1978 to 1990 at a cost of $1.5 billion, the HST (named for astronomer E. P. Hubble) was expected to provide the clearest view yet obtained of the universe. , which was put in orbit in 1990 and was long considered superior because its view was freed from the distorting effects of Earth's atmosphere. But now, land-based telescopes can correct for such distortion.

Just the names of many of the proposed observatories suggest an arms race: the Giant Magellan Telescope This article or section contains information about an expected future scientific facility.
It is likely to contain information of a speculative nature and the content may change as the facility approaches completion.
, the Thirty Meter Telescope The Thirty meter telescope (TMT) (formerly called the California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT)) is a future large segmented-mirror optical and infrared extremely large telescope, proposed and run by a consortium made up by Caltech, the University of California, and ACURA.  and the European Extremely Large Telescope The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is an extremely large telescope design proposed for the next-generation European Southern Observatory optical telescope with a mirror diameter of 42 meters. , which was downsized from the OverWhelmingly Large Telescope The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL) is a conceptual design by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) organization for an extremely large telescope, which was intended to have a single aperture of 100 meters in diameter, but was later scaled down to a 60 meter diameter . Add to those three big ground observatories a new super eye in the sky, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope This article or section documents a scheduled or expected spaceflight. Details may change as the launch date approaches or more information becomes available. , scheduled for launch in 2013.

Beyond our solar system

With these proposed giant telescopes, astronomers hope to get the first pictures of planets outside our solar system, watch stars and planets being born, and catch a glimpse Verb 1. catch a glimpse - see something for a brief time
catch sight, get a look

see - perceive by sight or have the power to perceive by sight; "You have to be a good observer to see all the details"; "Can you see the bird in that tree?"; "He is blind--he
 of what was happening near the birth of the universe.

"We know almost nothing about the universe in its early stages," said Carnegie Observatories director Wendy Freedman, who chairs the board that is building the Giant Magellan Telescope. "The GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) See UTC.

GMT - Universal Time 1
 is going to see in action the first stars, the first galaxies, the first supernovae, the first black holes to form."

When scientists look at a faraway celestial object, they are seeing it as it existed millions and millions of years ago, because it takes so long for light from the object to reach Earth.

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.

"We hope to answer these questions: Are we alone in the universe? What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy in the universe?" said astronomer Henri Boffin bof·fin also Bof·fin  
n. Chiefly British Slang
A scientist, especially one engaged in research.

[Origin unknown.
, outreach scientist for the European Southern Observatory European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental organization for astronomical research with headquarters in Garching, near Munich, Germany. The ESO began in 1962 as a consortium among Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. .

Technological breakthroughs

Two new technologies enable this extraordinary quest - one reliant on modern lasers and computing power and the other inspired by ancient Greek and Roman tilework.

The first is adaptive optics. It allows telescopes on the ground to get rid of the distortion caused when looking through Earth's thick atmosphere into space.

Adaptive optics relies on a laser to create an artificial star, or a constellation of fake stars, in the sky. Astronomers then examine the fake stars and use computers to calculate how much atmospheric distortion there is at any given time. Then they adjust the mirrors to compensate like a pair of eyeglasses eyeglasses or spectacles, instrument or device for aiding and correcting defective sight. Eyeglasses usually consist of a pair of lenses mounted in a frame to hold them in position before the eyes. . This adjustment happens automatically hundreds of times per second.

Adaptive optics worked first for smaller telescopes. But getting it to work for big observatories was a problem. The first successful use in large telescopes was in 2003 at the twin-telescope Keck Observatory in Hawaii, an effort that took nine years.

The second breakthrough involves technology that makes bigger mirrors possible. Instead of casting a giant mirror in one piece, which is difficult and limits size, astronomers now make smaller mirror segments and piece them together.

Keck scientist Jerry Nelson, now working on the Thirty Meter Telescope, pioneered this technique and said he got the idea from looking at how the Greeks and Romans tiled their baths. This technique is going from 36 segments in current telescopes to 492 segments with his new project.

Giant observatories

In astronomy, the bigger the mirror, the greater the amount of light that can be grabbed from the universe. For the past decade and a half, the Keck has had the largest Earthbound earth·bound also earth-bound  
1. Fastened in or to the soil: earthbound roots.

 telescopes, with mirrors nearly 33 feet in diameter.

However, three giant land observatories, proposed for construction within the decade, are going to dwarf those:

The Giant Magellan Telescope. A partnership of six U.S. universities, an Australian college, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a "research institute" of the Smithsonian Institution headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it is joined with the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) to form the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).  and the Carnegie Institution of Washington The introduction to this article may be too long. Please help improve the introduction by moving some material from it into the body of the article according to the suggestions at  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 California Institute of Technology, at Pasadena, Calif.; originally for men, became coeducational in 1970; founded 1891 as Throop Polytechnic Institute; called Throop College of Technology, 1913–20. , the University of California The University of California has a combined student body of more than 191,000 students, over 1,340,000 living alumni, and a combined systemwide and campus endowment of just over $7.3 billion (8th largest in the United States).  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 location yet. The cost would be $1.17 billion.

The managers of these projects are fairly confident that they will get the money they need to complete their grand visions. However, some astronomers worry that there may not be enough private or government money for all of them, so they find themselves competing for funding, even as they cheer one another on.

Hubble a distant memory

If completed, ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope would be the biggest of the new observatories and should be able to see 20 to 100 times more sharply than the current best land-based telescopes. The Hubble, which set the standard for stunning astronomical pictures, will seem less amazing.

"Oh, you ain't seen nothing yet," said 2006 Nobel Prize-winning physicist John Mather, senior project scientist for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

The $4.5 billion Webb 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 places such as Arizona and Hawaii have been successful sites for high--quality space images, Chile is the focal point of the next-generation building boom.

Both the Thirty Meter and European telescope are looking at several sites there although the Thirty Meter team also is considering Baja Mexico and Hawaii. What's needed is the right combination of atmospheric conditions, weather, high altitude, prevailing winds and dark skies.

Small works in play

But there is more in the works than just the super-sized scopes. Smaller, more specialized telescopes are in various stages of design and construction.

The $400 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
"LSST" redirects here. For the Lincolnshire School of Science and Technology, see The Priory LSST.

This article or section contains information about an expected future scientific facility.
 to be built in Chile by 2014 would survey the sky, constantly shooting a movie of 20 billion objects in the cosmos and spotting targets for bigger telescopes.

A planned project in Hawaii would be on the lookout for in search of; looking for.

See also: Lookout
 "killer asteroids." And in Chile, dozens of high-precision antennas are being erected for a huge radio astronomy observatory, called ALMA Alma (älmä`, ăl`mə), city (1991 pop. 25,910), S central Que., Canada, on the Saguenay River. In 1954 its name was shortened from St. Joseph d'Alma. There are granite quarries in the region, and the town has pulp and paper and aluminum plants. , that would look into the universe in a different way.

It is the biggest observatories in the works, however, that will provide the dramatic change in astronomical pictures. The pictures to come, Nelson said of the Thirty Meter project, will "knock your socks off, faint stuff that Hubble can't see."
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Title Annotation:Wire National; In planning stages, the giant instruments promise to yield finer, deeper space pictures
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 4, 2008
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