The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA's next orbiting observatory and the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. A tennis court-sized telescope orbiting far beyond Earth's moon, Webb will detect infrared radiation and be capable of seeing in that wavelength as well as Hubble sees in visible light. JWST is set to launch in 2018, and will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. Webb will reside in an orbit about 1.5 million km (1 million miles) from the Earth. Hubble is stationed in the low-earth orbit, 354 miles from the surface of the Earth.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990. It is stationed in the low-earth orbit, 354 miles from the surface of the Earth. The cost of the 2,800 watt telescope was 2.5 billion. Hubble is a telescope that orbits Earth. Its position above the atmosphere, which distorts and blocks the light that reaches our planet, gives it a view of the universe that far surpasses that of ground-based telescopes. Hubble is one of NASA's most successful and long-lasting science missions. It has beamed hundreds of thousands of images back to Earth, shedding light on many of the great mysteries of astronomy. Its gaze has helped determine the age of the universe, the identity of quasars, and the existence of dark energy.
SOFIA is designed for infrared astronomy observations in the stratosphere at altitudes of about 41,000 feet (about 12 km). SOFIA's flight capability allows it to rise above almost all of the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere, which blocks some infrared wavelengths from reaching the ground. At the aircraft's cruising altitude, 85% of the full infrared range will be available. The aircraft can also travel to almost any point on the Earth's surface, allowing observation from the northern and southern hemispheres.
Giant Magellan Telescope
The GMT is one of several large ground-based optical telescopes in development. Situated high and dry in Chile, it will have seven primary mirror segments, each over 26 feet across, arranged like the petals of a flower. GMT team goals include investigating three of the hottest cosmic topics now on the table—dark matter, dark energy, and planets outside our solar system—as well as the formation of galaxies and the growth of black holes. Like its competitor giant scopes, it will feature adaptive optics, which corrects image distortions caused by our turbulent atmosphere.
Thirty Meter Telescope
The TMT will be like a goliath version of Keck, currently the largest optical/infrared telescope with its twin 33-foot mirrors. Comprised of hundreds of segments, the TMT's composite mirror will be over 100 feet across, enabling it to see objects nine times fainter than Keck can. Altogether, the TMT will be able to gaze back to just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang, which astrophysicists put at 13 billion years ago. It, too, will enable the study of galaxy formation and of Saturn-sized Exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, among other pursuits.
European Extremely Large Telescope
The E-ELT will dwarf all other optical/near infrared telescopes. Its multi-faceted mirror, 138 feet across, will have almost a thousand hexagonal segments each almost five feet wide. Like Magellan and TMT, astronomers will use it to conduct a kind of stellar archeology, analyzing the earliest galaxies, as well as to scrutinize the spectra of extrasolar planets for atmospheric conditions conducive to life. One hope is to directly measure, for the first time, the acceleration of the universe's expansion. A site will be chosen by the end of 2010.
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
The LSST differs from the other ground-based optical telescopes in that it will have a wide field of view and will be able to move quickly between different areas of sky. Using the world's largest digital camera (3,200 megapixels), the LSST will do brief exposures of 10 to 20 seconds each. This will be ideal for investigating events too short-lived to be readily studied today, such as the trajectories of asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth. And by imaging the entire night sky every few nights, the LSST will offer, after about a decade of operation, the first "movie" of the universe.