Monday, June 25, 2007

And You Thought Hubble Was Impressive...

Over the years, we have seen some amazing, incredible, astounding, superlative-laden images coming from our valuable space friend, the Hubble Telescope. Hubble's had a few struggles, and has needed the occasional repair job, but it's also shown us things in space that have made us "ooh" and "aah" with childlike delight. One of the last missions of the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle will be to go out and give Hubble another much-needed tune-up. Thank you NASA, and keep the pictures coming. NASA, however, isn't resting on Hubble's laurels, and has bigger and better things in mind. The James Webb Space Telescope will someday be sending us pretty pictures from farther out in space than Hubble can peer, because NASA has figured out how to send up a mirror in folding segments, segments that will unfold once they get to their new home and outshine Hubble in the process. This, however, is just the beginning.

NASA has some even bigger plans, due to the development of a new rocket, the Ares V, which will be able to take payloads of 284,000 pounds off this pretty blue ball we call home. With the Ares V, NASA could send mirrors (the main part that makes all that telescoping possible) of over 8 meters into space--no folding required. The mere mention of 8-meter-mirrors may not convey much information to us non-scientist types, but all those jaw-dropping pictures from Hubble come courtesy of a mirror that's only 2.4 meters wide. According to NASA, we're looking at the possibility of telescopes with three times the resolution of Hubble, and the ability to see things that are eleven times fainter than what Hubble can detect right now, because the mirror's surface area will be eleven times greater. I'm not sure how that works mathematically, or scientifically, or any other kind of "ically," but since that won't stop me from enjoying the pictures and the knowledge we gain from the new super space-viewing toy, I'm prepared to forgo any concern I might have at being so dependant upon Smart People for all the really cool space stuff, and simply to be grateful that Smart People exist.

Follow the link to the NASA article to read all about their plans. If you want to expand your brain a bit, click on this "Lagrange point" link for an explanation of 18th-century mathematician Josef Lagrange's discovery of "parking" spots in space, spots where the pull of the Sun and the pull of the Earth conspire together to keep satellites firmly in place. NASA intends to use these spots to the fullest, and fill up the parking lot with various and sundry telescopes, all searching the heavens for new and vital spacey information, and more jaw-dropping pictures. The information is cool and all, and I'm glad that the Smart People have ways to collect and use it, but if you ask me, the best part is the pictures.