Europe discusses the future space telescope
15 July 1998The head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Science Programme will tell more than 200 astronomers gathered in Belgium today (Thursday - June 18) thatEurope could play a significant role in the development of a new space telescope.
Prof. Roger Bonnet said it was important for Europe to make an informed decision in the next few years on whether to support NASA's proposed New Generation Space Telescope (NGST), a follow-on programme to the Hubble Space Telescope.
NGST's observing capabilities will far extend the reach of existing ground or space-based telescopes, providing the opportunity for the first time to look back through eons of time to the very first stars and galaxies in the Universe.
With an aperture greater than four metres, NGST could also provide European astronomers with a crucial complement to some of ESA's planned future space projects, like FIRST (the Far InfraRed Submillimetre Telescope) and Planck (a mission to study the cosmic background radiation field).
NASA and ESA are already involved in preliminary NGST studies but Europe has yet to make a commitment to support the programme. NASA wants to start formal development in 2003, with a launch currently planned for 2007. This week's conference at Liege in Belgium was the first opportunity for many astronomers to exchange ideas and compare technological notes on a Next Generation Space Telescope. It also provided a forum for representatives of Europe's space industry to discuss the technological challenges presented by such a project.
Prof. Bonnet said: "From recent experience it is clear that the best scientific results in astronomy and astrophysics are obtained by coordinated observations in different wavelength ranges.
"The joint effort of the European space programme and of the various large European ground observatories currently allows European astronomers to be on the front-line of astrophysics research."He said that ESA - if supported programmatically and financially by its member states - is willing to discuss with NASA a mutually fruitful form of NGST participation.
But Prof. Bonnet stressed that for this type of collaboration to be approved it remained crucial that the European share contained both scientific and technological "qualifying activities".
One possibility is to use one of ESA's "flexi-missions" foreseen in Horizon 2000+, the agency's long term science plan. The Horizon 2000+ report recommends that ESA consider the development of infrared detectors and perform technological studies on lightweight, passively cooled, high optical-quality mirrors for use in the 2-100 micron part of the spectrum.
European scientists and astronomers are enthusiastic users of the Hubble Space Telescope, currently occupying some 20 percent of its total observing time.
Activities are managed through the European Coordinating Facility (ECF), which was set by ESA at Garching near Munich, Germany, alongside the base of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
In return for a share of Hubble observing time for European astronomers, ESA provided a number of the telescope's key features, including the faint object camera and the solar panels.