Japan announced the successful launch on February 12 of a satellite that will help create a radio telescope with the gathering power of a dish bigger than the earth. Meanwhile, U.S. astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery neared completion of a major refit of the Hubble Space Telescope, designed to greatly expand its ability to peer into the furthest depths of space and time.
The two instruments, one new and one improved, are already being hailed by scientists as the beginning of a new era in space exploration.
NASA and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory joined with an international consortium of space agencies to support the launch of Japan's Very Long Baseline Interferometry Space Observatory Program satellite, the purpose of which is to create the largest astronomical "instrument" ever built -- a radio telescope more than two-and-a-half times the diameter of the Earth -- that will give astronomers their sharpest view yet of the universe.
Very Long Baseline Interferometry, or VLBI, is a method of linking several widely separated radio telescopes in a way that results in the resolving power of an instrument as big as the distance between the separate dishes. Up until now, the maximum size of such an instrument was limited by the diameter of the earth. But now, by placing one leg of such an instrument in space, its size is limited only by its maximum orbital distance from the earth.
The orbit of the Japanese satellite is purposely highly eliptical, ranging from a low of about 620 miles to a maximum of about 12,400 miles. This will allow the new instrument to make a series of measurements of one target object at different resolving powers, an important feature for maximum clarity of data. At its largest, the VLBI instrument will be the equivalent of a radio dish two and a half times the size of the earth.
Its resolving power will be acute enough, figuratively speaking, to see a grain of rice in Los Angeles from a vantage point in Tokyo.
Meanwhile, a series of spacewalks by astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery, starting on Thursday, February 13 and planned to conclude on Sunday, are refitting the Hubble Space Telescope with state of the art imaging equipment designed to give it many times more power to see into some of the most complex places in the universe, including the primordial clouds of dust and gas that are the birthplace of stars and galaxies.
"It's going to give a whole new set of abilities to the telescope," said Robert Kirshner, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "What you'll see as a result of this is there's a whole different kind of science coming out."
The advent of truly powerful space-based astronomical instruments is seen by many as the dawn of a new age of space exploration, affording humans the ability to see clearly into parts of the universe that will probably never be accessible to spacecraft. Questions regarding quasars, the most distant and powerful emitting bodies in the universe, and black holes, which may be the engines that drive the life of whole galaxies, may be answered by these new instruments.
Even the question of the ultimate beginning and end of the universe is no longer out of reach, according to some scientists.
For the next several weeks, both the newly upgraded Hubble and the newly launched Japanese satellite will undergo basic testing and stabilization exercises. Then, if all goes well, the real science will begin.
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