WASHINGTON - Professional astronomers this year are about to get a windfall of new telescopes of unprecedented power with which to explore the universe.
The bonanza arrives 400 years after Galileo spied craters on the moon through the world's first telescope.
Instruments coming on line in 2009 will open new windows on the heavens by using different technologies and different wavelengths of light. They'll be able to see things in the far ranges of ultraviolet, infrared or radio waves that are invisible in the narrow band of optical light.
"This year's going to be huge," said Julianne Dalcanton, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The new capabilities are going to be absolutely fabulous."
The International Astronomical Union, an organization of about 10,000 professional astronomers, has named 2009 the International Year of Astronomy. That's in honor of Galileo, who was accused of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church for insisting that the Earth moves around the sun.
Among telescope projects under way in 2009 are:
A major upgrade of the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, including two advanced detectors that will vastly improve its vision for another five years.
A bigger European rival to Hubble called the Herschel Space Observatory.
ALMA, an array of 50-plus telescopes on a lofty desert in Chile that will be the most powerful ground-based observation system to date.
Kepler, an orbiting telescope designed specifically to look for inhabitable planets around distant stars.
Pan-STARRS, a set of four interconnected telescopes to detect fast-moving hazardous objects, such as satellites or space rocks.
IceCube, an upside-down space particle observatory buried under the ice at the South Pole.
The Allen Telescope Array, a set of 42 radio telescopes listening for extraterrestrial messages from possible civilizations around another star.
Waiting for future financing are even larger, more powerful machines, including two giant telescopes with light-collecting mirrors three to four times as big as any existing telescope.
The larger of the two, the 140-foot-wide European Extremely Large Telescope, could make pictures of clouds, mountains and seas on distant planets. It's now in the design stage, and construction might begin in 2010. Despite its huge size, it's a scaled-down version of a 330-foot Overwhelmingly Large (OWL) telescope that was canceled for technical and cost reasons.
Another ground-based instrument, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will take about 1,000 images of each spot in the entire sky over its lifetime. Taken together, the repeated images will produce color movies of celestial objects as they change or move, including potentially hazardous asteroids. The LSST can also trace changes in the expansion of the universe caused by the mysterious force known as dark energy. Work on the telescope mirror is under way, and it should start taking images in 2015.
The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's successor to Hubble, is under construction and scheduled for launch in 2013. Its main mirror, 21 feet in diameter, has to be folded up to fit in the launch vehicle, along with a sunshield that opens up to the size of a tennis court. The telescope will orbit almost a million miles from Earth, where it will study the first stars and galaxies formed after the birth of the universe, 13.7 billion years ago. Unlike Hubble, it mostly will work in infrared light.
Here are main features of the new crop of telescopes:
The Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990, will get a new lease on life when NASA launches the fifth and final shuttle mission to repair and upgrade its aging instruments. The launch is scheduled for May 12.
In addition, astronauts will install two devices - a Wide Field Camera and a Cosmic Origins Spectrograph - that will add fresh capabilities to the venerable Hubble.
"We estimate that at the end of this repair, Hubble will be 90 times more powerful than when it was first launched," said Sandra Faber, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Dalcanton, the University of Washington astronomer, is especially excited by the new spectrograph, a device that can determine the chemical makeup of a star and the atmosphere of an alien planet. This information is usually more valuable to scientists than a pretty image.
"An image tells us something's there," Dalcanton said. "Spectra tell us what kind of object it is, what it's made of, and does it have an atmosphere."
On April 10, the European Space Agency is scheduled to launch the Herschel Space Observatory - a telescope bigger and more powerful than Hubble. Herschel's main light-collecting mirror is 11.5 feet wide, 11/2 times bigger than Hubble's, and the largest mirror ever deployed in space.
Herschel will be parked 900,000 miles out in space, far beyond Hubble's 350-mile, low-Earth orbit, and will observe mostly in the far-infrared range, which Hubble doesn't reach.
Piggybacking on the same launch rocket with Herschel will be the Planck Satellite, a European telescope that will survey in greater detail than ever before the cosmic background radiation left over from the birth of the universe.