First, most people think that there is one great Telescope - The Hubble (seen above). In fact, there are a bunch. To grasp the wonders of the cosmos, and understand its infinite variety and splendor, we must collect and analyze radiation (ie light, sound, and other waveforms) emitted throughout the universe.
Towards that end, NASA a series of Great Observatories, a series of space-borne telescopes designed to conduct astronomical studies over many different wavelengths (visible, gamma rays, X-rays, and infrared). An important aspect of the Great Observatory program was to overlap the operational phases of the missions to enable astronomers to make simultaneous (or as close as possible), observations of an object at different spectral wavelengths and merge their images).
THE HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE
The first element of the program -- and the best known -- is the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This is their main website. The Hubble telescope was deployed by a NASA Space Shuttle in 1990. After the Hubble was found to have significant problems, a subsequent Shuttle mission in 1993 serviced HST and recovered its full capability. A second successful servicing mission took place in 1997. Subsequent servicing missions have added additional capabilities to HST, which observes the Universe at ultraviolet, visual, and near-infrared wavelengths.
Since its preliminary inception, HST was designed to be a different type of mission for NASA -- a long term space-based observatory. From its position 380 miles above Earth's surface, the Hubble Space Telescope has contributed enormously to astronomy. It has expanded our understanding of star birth, star death, and galaxy evolution, and has helped move black holes from scientific theory to fact. Credited with thousands of images and the subject of thousands of research papers, the space telescope is helping astronomers answer a wide range of intriguing questions about the origin and evolution of the universe. You can see their images at Hubblesite. Here are some samples:
On Hubble, there are currently failed processors and old equipment (could you deal with 20 year old computers?), and because of public support, NASA agreed to train a Space Shuttle crew and schedule a fourth mission to revamp it. This mission is currently expected to take place sometime in 2009. It is literally one of the hardest space flight missions ever undertaken. This fourth visit to Hubble could keep the telescope operational for another 20 years!
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has produced amazing results and if this next servicing mission is successful -- and that is not a given by any means - it will produce even more amazing results. You can track the Hubble Servicing Mission at this site and see some of the Hubble discoveries and photographs.
THE JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE (JWST)
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013. JWST will find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy. JWST will peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System. JWST's instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range.
JWST will have a large mirror, 6.5 meters (21.3 feet) in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both the mirror and sunshade won't fit onto the rocket fully open, so both will fold up and open only once JWST is in outer space. JWST will reside in an orbit about 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth. This is much further than the reach of a Space Shuttle and is 4 times farther than humans have travelled in space. Yet, if the next generation of human launch vehicles (see the Constellation Program) is approved and successful, we could use those spacecraft to reach and service the JWST if needed!
The James Webb Space Telescope was named after the former NASA Administrator who is most closely associated with leading the Apollo missions. What is not generally known was his success in convincing the Administrations at the time (Kennedy and Johnson) of the need for a balanced space program that included a heavy emphasis on robotic missions.
Although President John Kennedy had committed the nation to landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade, Webb believed that the space program was more than a political race. He believed that NASA had to strike a balance between human space flight and science because such a combination would serve as a catalyst for strengthening the nation's universities and aerospace industry.
As part of an oral history project sponsored by the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, Webb recalled his conversations with Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. He was quoted as saying in one transcript, "And so far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to run a program that's just a one-shot program. If you want me to be the administrator, it's going to be a balanced program that does the job for the country..."
Webb's vision of a balanced program resulted in a decade of space science research that remains unparalleled today. During his tenure, NASA invested in the development of robotic spacecraft, which explored the lunar environment so that astronauts could do so later, and it sent scientific probes to Mars and Venus, giving Americans their first-ever view of the strange landscape of outer space. As early as 1965, Webb also had written that a major space telescope, then known as the Large Space Telescope, should become a major NASA effort.
By the time Webb retired just a few months before the first moon landing in July 1969, NASA had launched more than 75 space science missions to study the stars and galaxies, our own Sun and the as-yet unknown environment of space above the Earth's atmosphere. Missions such as the Orbiting Solar Observatory and the Explorer series of astronomical satellites built the foundation for the most successful period of astronomical discovery in history, which continues today.
Webb supported science behind the scenes, as well. Shortly after assuming the job vacated by Keith Glennan, Webb chose to continue the same basic organization that his predecessor had adopted for the selection of science programs. However, he enhanced the role of scientists in key ways. He gave them greater control in the selection process of science missions and he created the NASA University Program, which established grants for space research, funded the construction of new laboratories at universities and provided fellowships for graduate students. The program also encouraged university presidents and vice presidents to actively participate in NASA's Space Science Program and to publicly support all of NASA's programs.
The Stereo Solar Observatory - Studying the Sun in 3D!
The twin Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatories (STEREO) mission is the third in NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes program (STP). This two-year mission, launched October 2006, will provide a unique and revolutionary view of the Sun-Earth System. The two nearly identical observatories - one ahead of Earth in its orbit, the other trailing behind - will trace the flow of energy and matter from the Sun to Earth. They will reveal the 3D structure of coronal mass ejections; violent eruptions of matter from the sun that can disrupt satellites and power grids, and help us understand why they happen. STEREO will become a key addition to the fleet of space weather detection satellites by providing more accurate alerts for the arrival time of Earth-directed solar ejections with its unique side-viewing perspective.
THE HERSCHEL SPACE OBSERVATORY
The Herschel Space Observatory is a space-based telescope that will study the Universe by the light of the far-infrared and submillimeter portions of the spectrum. It is expected to reveal new information about the earliest, most distant stars and galaxies, as well as those closer to home in space and time. It will also take a unique look at our own solar system.
Herschel is the fourth Cornerstone mission in the European Space Agency's Horizon 2000 program. Ten countries, including the United States, are participating in its design and implementation. It is scheduled to be launched in April 2009, and is expected to remain an active observatory for at least three years.
Much of the Universe consists of gas and dust that is far too cold to radiate in visible light or at shorter wavelengths such as x-rays. However, even at temperatures well below the most frigid spot on Earth, they do radiate at far-infrared and submillimeter wavelengths.
Stars and other cosmic objects that are hot enough to shine at optical wavelengths are often hidden behind vast dust clouds that absorb the visible light and reradiate it in the far-infrared and submillimeter.
There's a lot to see at these wavelengths, and much of it has been virtually unexplored. Earthbound telescopes are largely unable to observe this portion of the spectrum because most of this light is absorbed by moisture in the atmosphere before it can reach the ground. Previous space-based infrared telescopes have had neither the sensitivity of Herschel's large mirror, nor the ability of Herschel's three detectors to do such a comprehensive job of sensing this important part of the spectrum.
Herschel's namesake will give scientists their most complete look so far at the large portion of the Universe that radiates in far-infrared and submillimeter wavelengths.
With a primary mirror 3.5 meters in diameter, Herschel will be the largest infrared telescope sent into space as of its launch date. It will focus light onto three instruments called HIFI, SPIRE, and PACS, which will enable Herschel to be the first spacecraft to observe in the full 60-670 micron range.
THE KEPLER SPACE TELESCOPE
Launched on March 6, 2009, the Kepler Mission will search for Earth-like planets with the "transit" method. A one-meter diameter (39-inch) telescope equipped with the equivalent of 42 high quality digital cameras will continuously monitor the brightness of 100,000 stars, looking for planets that cross the lines-of-sight between Kepler and their parent stars.
THE PLANCK SPACE TELESCOPE
Planck was selected as the third Medium-Sized Mission (M3) of the European Space Agency's Horizon 2000 Scientific Program, and is today part of its Cosmic Vision Program. It is designed to image the Cosmic Background Radiation Field over the whole sky, with unprecedented sensitivity and angular resolution. Planck will provide a major source of information relevant to several cosmological and astrophysical issues, such as testing theories of the early universe and the origin of cosmic structure. The scientific development of the mission is directed by the Planck Science Team.
The Planck Telescope was formerly called COBRAS/SAMBA. After the mission was selected and approved (in late 1996), it was renamed in honor of the German scientist Max Planck (1858-1947), Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. It is planned to launch Planck in early April of 2009 together with the Herschel satellite. After launch, Planck and Herschel will separate and will be placed in different orbits around the second Lagrangian point of the Earth-Sun System.
THE SPITZER SPACE OBDERVATORY
The Spitzer Space Telescope represents the fourth and final element in NASA's Great Observatory program. Spitzer fills in an important gap in wavelength coverage not available from the ground -- the thermal infrared.
The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched into space by a Delta rocket on August 25, 2003. Spitzer obtains images and spectra by detecting the infrared energy, or heat, radiated by objects in space between wavelengths of 3 and 180 microns (1 micron is one-millionth of a meter). Most of this infrared radiation is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere and cannot be observed from the ground.
Consisting of a 0.85-meter telescope and three cryogenically-cooled science instruments, Spitzer is the largest infrared telescope ever launched into space. Its highly sensitive instruments give us a unique view of the Universe and allow us to peer into regions of space which are hidden from optical telescopes. Many areas of space are filled with vast, dense clouds of gas and dust which block our view. Infrared light, however, can penetrate these clouds, allowing us to peer into regions of star formation, the centers of galaxies, and into newly forming planetary systems. Infrared also brings us information about the cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars which are too dim to be detected by their visible light, extrasolar planets, and giant molecular clouds. Also, many molecules in space, including organic molecules, have their unique signatures in the infrared.
THE CHANDRA XRAY OBSERVATORY
The Chandra X-Ray Observatory (CXO), was deployed from a Space Shuttle and boosted into a high-Earth orbit in July 1999. This observatory is observing such objects as black holes, quasars, and high-temperature gases throughout the x-ray portion of the Electro-Magnetic (EM) spectrum.
Chandra detects and images X-ray sources that are billions of light years away. The mirrors on Chandra are the largest, most precisely shaped and aligned, and smoothest mirrors ever constructed. If the surface of Earth was as smooth as the Chandra mirrors, the highest mountain would be less than six feet tall! The images Chandra makes are twenty-five times sharper than the best previous X-ray telescope. This focusing power is equivalent to the ability to read a newspaper at a distance of half a mile. Chandra's improved sensitivity is making possible more detailed studies of black holes, supernovas, and dark matter. Chandra will increase our understanding of the origin, evolution, and destiny of the universe.
THE FERMI GAMMA-RAY TELESCOPE (FORMALLY KNOWN AS GLAST)
The Universe is home to numerous exotic and beautiful phenomena, some of which can generate almost inconceivable amounts of energy. Supermassive black holes, merging neutron stars, streams of hot gas moving close to the speed of light ... these are but a few of the marvels that generate gamma-ray radiation, the most energetic form of radiation, billions of times more energetic than the type of light visible to our eyes. What is happening to produce this much energy? What happens to the surrounding environment near these phenomena? How will studying these energetic objects add to our understanding of the very nature of the Universe and how it behaves?
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, formerly GLAST, will open this high-energy world to exploration and help us to answer these questions. With Fermi, astronomers will at long last have a superior tool to study how black holes, notorious for pulling matter in, can accelerate jets of gas outward at fantastic speeds. Physicists will be able to study subatomic particles at energies far greater than those seen in ground-based particle accelerators. And cosmologists will gain valuable information about the birth and early evolution of the Universe.
For this unique endeavor, one that brings together the astrophysics and particle physics communities, NASA is teaming up with the U.S. Department of Energy and institutions in France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Sweden. General Dynamics built the spacecraft. Fermi was launched on June 11, 2008 .
I have not covered all of the current and planned Space Telescopes here, but will update this page frequently. You can also visit the JPL missions page. You can see the ESA missions too. Their site is hard to navigate, but this is a good place to start.
For reference, The NASA Space Science Telescope missions are generally controlled by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI) in Baltimore. JPL is closely aligned with the California Institute of Technology, and Arizona State University. STSI is closely aligned with the Johns Hopkins University.
The ESA Portal is worth reading as it shows their missions, their links to Universities around the world. I have not yet mentioned the activities and plans of other countries, notably China and India, who also want to build and use Space-based observatories, and have science equipment already on board the ESA and NASA telescopes.
Finally, I want to remind you once more that all of these programs, human, robotic, DSN, Earth and Space Telescopes, and more, cost .1% of the US Defense spending. What if it was .2%?
* Don't forget to click on the images!