We´ve never known
more about the universe than we do right
now-and that´s precisely the problem.
Every significant astronomical discovery of
the past 50 years-afterglow from the
big bang, evidence of dark matter,
planets circling distant stars, just to name a few-has helped to create an ever-larger and more perplexing set of cosmic questions: Is there life on those faraway planets? How
did the first stars form after the big bang?
Is the universe filled with an antigravitational force, and, if so, what the heck is it? And most intriguingly: What else are we missing?
Answers to questions like these do not come from idle reflection. They come from building really good telescopes. Over the next decade, the first generation of telescopes conceived, designed, and built with the help of computers will open their eyes to the heavens, each
with the power to rock our fundamental
understanding of the cosmos. Some of these
telescopes-such as the trio of satellites riding gravitational waves on the preceding
pages-don´t look like traditional telescopes
at all, but each has the ability to reach
out into the universe and uncover its
idiosyncrasies, its wonderful strangeness.
On the following pages we profile 10
of the most important, audacious and
powerful of these instruments, including a space telescope so large it must be folded to
fit in the rocket, an orbiting laser system
that can detect ripples in spacetime
from colliding black holes, and an Antarctic neutrino detector that uses the mass of the
Earth as a protective shield. What secrets of the universe will they reveal in the coming decades? The answer to that question may provide the greatest mystery of all.
1.JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE
Undisputed king of the night sky
Sponsor: NASA, Space Telescope Science Institute
Location: In orbit, one million miles from Earth
Cost: $2.5 billion
Scheduled completion: 2011
In August 2011, most likely atop an Ariane rocket rising from a launchpad in French Guyana, a 6.5-meter beryllium-and-gold mirror will sit folded into thirds like an elegant drop-leaf table, enduring the hellish forces of liftoff. The James Webb Space Telescope´s primary mirror is as big as a two-car garage, and there isn´t a roomy enough rocket fairing to carry it unfolded.
Once in space, the biggest telescope ever launched will unfold its mirror and unfurl a 2,400-square-foot sunshade as it drifts into orbit around Lagrange point 2, a spot one
million miles away from Earth where net gravitational forces are very weak. Why place it so far away, out of reach of any repair or upgrade mission? Because out there, the infrared telescope won´t feel Earth´s heat. The JWST, you see, will be looking out at the cosmos with an infrared camera, somewhat like the night-scopes that soldiers use to spot enemies in the dark, but incomparably more sensitive. (JWST project scientist John Mather calls his detectors â€miraculously goodâ€ and â€nearly perfect.â€) Any heat near the telescope will show up as noise-hence the million-miles-from-Earth orbit, sunshade, and onboard cryogenics that will cool the optics down to just 37 Celsius degrees above absolute zero (â€393