Astronomers ranked future projects hoping for government and private funding to launch several telescopes. The projects range from those planted securely on terra firma to others traversing the heavens. The telescopes utilizing better technology will look towards the first stars, black holes and galaxies attempting to discern the beginning of time.
Three scientific objectives were indicated in the National Research Council?s report: deepening understanding of how those celestial objects were formed, locating the closest habitable Earth-like planets beyond the solar system for detailed study, and using astronomical measurements to unravel the mysteries of gravity and probe fundamental physics.
Highest priority went to telescopes that can observe the universe at infrared and even longer wavelengths. The astronomers are planning ahead, looking to develop the instruments between 2012 and 2021. Roger Blandford, chair of the reporting committee said: "Powerful new ways to observe the universe and bold ideas to understand it have created scientific opportunities without precedent."
WISE Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
The orbiting observatory, Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer [WISE] was ranked as a top priority among large projects costing over $1 billion. The WISE telescope has a 40 cm diameter in an all aluminum optical system that produces images of the sky with 2.75 arcsec resolution in four infrared spectral bands.
WISE completed its primary mission, a full scan of the entire sky in infrared light, the middle of July. However, one of the two coolant tanks that keep the spacecraft’s normal operating temperature at 12 Kelvin [minus 438 degrees Fahrenheit] is depleted. One of WISE’s infrared detectors, the longest-wavelength band most sensitive to heat, stopped producing useful data after the telescope warmed to 31 Kelvin [minus 404 degrees Fahrenheit]. One of the images it already captured was the Rosette nebula located within the constellation Monoceros, commonly known as the Unicorn. The observatory will continue its mission scanning half the sky until the second coolant tank is also depleted.
They turned thumbs down on the SIM Lite Astrometric Observatory that was looking for habitable, Earthlike planets, even though it could be launched quickly in comparison to timetables on what the committee considered higher priorities.
The highest ranked earthbound telescope was the 8.4 meter Large Synoptic Survey Telescope [LSST], a wide-field visible-light telescope. LSST will be located on Cerro Pachón, a mountain in northern Chile. Its mission, coming at a price tag of $465 million, is to watch half the sky every four nights looking for supernovas and seeking to bring light to the area of dark energy. It will examine how shapes of galaxies are distorted over cosmic time. Equipped with the world?s largest digital camera at 3.2 billion pixels, it will return images in multiple color, hopefully for 10 years, producing 30 terabytes of data each night. This will enable scientists to study objects that move or change in brightness.
The International X-ray Observatory [IXO] got the nod from the committee also. It hopes for a glimpse of the radiation left over from the Big Bang, examining hot gas around stars and galaxies. This mission would complement the European Space Agency?s Planck already launched last year. The IXO launch is planned for 2021. IXO is designed to operate for a minimum of five years, with a goal of 10 years.
Additionally, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna was viewed favorably. It consists of an array of low-frequency detectors that would try to find gravitational waves that are described as ripples in spacetime generated by distant black hole mergers and the motions of closely orbiting, dense stars within the Milky Way. If a test mission passes muster, the project could possibly be ready by 2025 at a cost of $2.4 billion.
The committee recommended the review by an independent panel of the missions? technical readiness, cost, and development schedule. The panel wistfully wished for the monetary surpluses of the early 2000s, instead of the current restrictive economic conditions.
However, the National Research Council wants the federal government to contribute about 25 percent of approximately $1.4 billion towards the International Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope, advertised to be one of the largest visible-light and infrared telescopes ever built.