Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cosmic Peephole Leaves Astronomers Agog

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cosmic Peephole Leaves Astronomers Agog

Article excerpt

FOR American astronomers, long-held dreams are coming true - while a potential nightmare surfaces.

The Hubble Space Telescope is providing the most detailed views of the universe ever seen by man. This week, scientists revealed that by peering deep into one tiny patch of the cosmos, they had discovered 1,500 to 2,000 galaxies.

The clearer views of distant, unusually shaped clumps of stars is expected to help unlock the mysteries of how and when the universe was created. Astronomers also saw the face of star - other than our own - for the first time.

The historic breakthroughs were reported here at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. But the excitement was tempered by more earthly concerns.

Neal Lane, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), warned astronomers that the recent government shutdowns created an "unprecedented, abominable mess" that will likely disrupt their funding.

Dr. Lane explained that it will take six to nine months or longer to work through the paperwork logjam that built up during a month of enforced NSF inactivity. He said even the "heroic" efforts now being made by "our dedicated but terribly demoralized staff" may not prevent funding gaps for ongoing research programs. He added that there also "are likely to be ... substantial delays in funding new awards."

That's not a welcome message for astronomers. While the research was done with the Hubble telescope, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), much of the follow-up research will be done on the ground. NSF is the main funding agency for US ground-based astronomy.

When put into orbit above the earth, the Hubble telescope's main mirror was discovered to be flawed. But fitted with corrective lenses, the telescope "has such superb optics" that it "has given us an unprecedented view" of a detailed portion of the sky, said Robert Williams, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

For 10 days, the Hubble eye was pointed at a speck of sky only as large as a grain of sand held at arm's length. But that spot near the North Star shows a plenitude of galaxies of different shapes, colors, sizes, and brightnesses. …

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