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The towering E-ELT will begin construction within 3 years and will sport an awesome 40 m diameter. Check out the white car in comparison to the telescope.  (Source: European Union)

The James Webb Space Telescope pictured here launches in 2013, and promises an exciting upgrade to the Hubble. It works in the infrared and visible light ranges.  (Source: NASA)

This is a brief timeline of the History of the universe, with important cosmological events noted. Notice the first stars period and the dark gap between it and the Afterglow Light Pattern. The first stars marked the start of the Reionization Period.  (Source: NASA)

The VertexRSI unit-1 antenna and North American ALMA Project Scientist Al Wootten (in hard hat) at the ALMA Operations Support Facility in Chile. A Melco antenna can be seen in the background (left center).  (Source: NAASC and NRAO)
New telescopes are in the works for space, on the ground, in all shapes and sizes thanks to international support

From the early designs of astronomer Ibn al-Haytham and Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei to the Hubble telescope and large radio and infrared ground based telescopes, the history of the telescope has been long, complex, and full of breakthroughs.  Now new designs are aiming to push the limits of telescopes beyond their capabilities and let them see literally farther back in time.

Telescopes in their many forms detect electromagnetic radiation, which was produced by celestial bodies hundreds of millions, if not billions of years ago.  The older the radiation, the more it is scattered across the universe in many directions, and thus the fainter it will appear.  Thus, in order to pick up older stuff the basic rule of thumb is the more power, the better. 

Also valuable is implementing different telescope designs to catch different types of electromagnetic radiation, as some celestial bodies are prone to emit more of a certain type of ray, i.e. gamma rays or infrared.  Large-scale telescope designs generally fall into three categories: reflecting telescopes (includes infrared and visible light designs), radio telescopes, and high-frequency (gamma and X-ray) telescopes.

Some exciting new designs are being constructed and worked on that promise to both enrich the variety of designs and pump of the power from the previous generation.  These designs take advantage of modern computer processing as well as innovative physical designs.  Many of these telescopes are going to be towering giants, while others will be massive arrays of many smaller telescopes.

One of the new "young gun" telescopes is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is scheduled to launch in 2013 as a replacement to the aging, yet venerable, Hubble.  The telescope will be bigger than the Hubble, with a tennis court sized sunshield and massive mirror (6.5 m in diameter) that will unfold, once the telescope reaches its intended L2 orbit.  The telescope is infrared optimized, but also offers strong capabilities in the visual light range.

Meanwhile, smaller radio telescopes are combining their powers to form a massively powerful network, which should have record setting resolution and sensitivity when finished.  The network combines telescopes across three continents.  It will combine the Atacam Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALCA), located in Chile; the LOFAR network in Europe; and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), which is planned to be constructed in either Africa or Australia.

Finally, there are new designs for singular Extremely Large Telescope (telescopes with dishes bigger than 20m in diameter) that should be under construction soon.  There are ten active ELT projects worldwide; none are fully complete yet.  However, Europe is forging ahead strongly, looking to implement its E-ELT, the European Extremely Large Telescope.  The E-ELT will have a dish size of 40m and thanks to a 57M € grant from the European Union, will begin construction within three years.

These new telescope designs promises to help mankind see back to the start of the reionization period.  The reionization period is an important cosmological event which occurred approximately 13 billion years ago.  While the early universe was hot and ionized, after cooling, protons and electrons paired up into neutral hydrogen.  The neutral hydrogen emitted little light, despite being around 3,000K.  The universe went largely dark, then for millions of years.  Then, hydrogen collapsed due to the weight of gravity and began to form stars which reionized, producing visible light.  The period in which visible light began to be produced again is called the reionization period.  While no current telescopes have the power to detect the faint traces from this period, these new designs hope to begin to approach it as they travel back through time.

Forging ahead with these designs is a tremendously ambitious undertaking, but one which will ultimately benefit all of mankind with a richer understanding of our universe.  The designs will require enormous funds and international cooperation, but the great deal of support they are receiving promises to make these dreams a reality.  It should be an exciting next decade for the cosmology and astronomy enthusiast.





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