European cosmologists were warned last week that they are in danger of losing their stake in space telescopy unless they get involved in Nasa's plans to replace the Hubble telescope.
Bob Fosbury, of the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility in Munich, told the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy/Royal Greenwich Observatory conference that rapid progress was being made towards a launch in 2006 for the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) and urged European agencies and institutions to take part.
The telescope will allow cosmo-logists to build on the discoveries made possible by Hubble. Top of the scientific agenda is to use observations of distant supernovae to measure the rate of deceleration of the universe. These supernovae can also offer clues about the age and density of the universe. Dr Fosbury told the conference: "Life without Hubble or a successor to Hubble is inconceivable."
A possible entry route for Europe will come in 2001 when the agreement between Nasa and the European Space Agency over access to Hubble expires. It will be re-negotiated from scratch and could include provision for European involvement in NGST.
Nasa is planning the NGST with the maxim "better, faster, bigger and cheaper" in mind. The new telescope could take as little as three years to build, compared to 15 for Hubble. The total budget for the project is a relatively frugal $900 million, so developing costly new technology is off the agenda, but Nasa is still nervous about getting the money from the taxpayer. One of its priorities during the planning stage is to use the success of Hubble to build up public support for funding.
If it goes ahead the NGST will orbit the earth at an altitude of 1.5 million kilometres. Unlike Hubble it will never be visited by astronaut repairers. It will take 40,000 frames of film a year and send data back to earth at a rate of 160 kilobytes per second. One of the scientific priorities is to find cluster globules, the building blocks of galaxies, to extend our understanding of how galaxies form.