Space: Telescope will see beginning of time

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The Independent Online
European and American astronomers are planning an ambitious new space telescope that will operate beyond Mars and be able to see back almost to the beginning of time.

The "Next Generation Space Telescope", as the project is known, is intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope when that finally reaches the end of its life in 2005.

The enormous popularity of pictures taken by Hubble of star formations and planets in our solar system means that the new telescope is sure to receive political backing - always an obstacle to such expensive projects.

The scheme is being led by the US space agency NASA but will receive vital contributions from European scientists, and particularly British astronomers, who have an international reputation in the techniques that the new telescope will employ.

While the Hubble telescope, launched in 1991, is often thought of as being an extension of a simple optical telescope - taking pictures with light that the human eye can perceive - it has increasingly been used to picture events and objects which do not emit visible light, but give off infra-red radiation, or heat. Apparently dark patches of sky are often alive with infra-red light from distant stars.

The Next Generation telescope would take the Hubble's abilities to their logical conclusion, and be used to study events from just a billion years after the Big Bang. At that time the early stars mostly emitted energy in the form of infra-red light.

One of the British team members, Professor Roger Davies of Durham University's astronomy department, said: "We expect to see the birth of stars and galaxies. We will witness the act of creating the very stuff we are made of."

The Hubble orbits Earth, where there is less interference from ground- based radiation, and no intervening atmosphere to distort the images from distant space. It can observe events which happened a few billion years after the Big Bang. The Next Generation telescope - which is expected to cost $300m compared to Hubble's $1bn - should be able to capture images of events which happened when the universe was less than a tenth of its present age.

Putting the Next Generation telescope beyond Mars would let it operate at temperatures close to absolute zero (-273C), and without interference from ground-based radiation.