A telescope arms race is taking shape around the world. Astronomers are drawing up plans for the biggest, most powerful instruments ever constructed, capable of peering far deeper into the universe — and further back in time — than ever before.The building boom, which is expected to play out over the next decade and cost billions of dollars, is being driven by technological advances that afford unprecedented clarity and magnification. Some scientists say it will be much like switching from regular TV to high-definition. In fact, the super-sized telescopes will yield even finer pictures than the Hubble Space Telescope, which was put in orbit in 1990 and was long considered superior because its view was freed from the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere. But now, land-based telescopes can correct for such distortion. Just the names of many of the proposed observatories suggest an arms race: the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, which was downsized from the OverWhelmingly Large Telescope. Add to those three big ground observatories a new super eye in the sky, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013.
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