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Seeing a Frisbee on the Sun

hubblevs.maxim
Image: NASA/HST (top); Benjamin Bromley (bottom)

Move over, Hubble. There is a new space telescope in the works that scientists report will have enough resolve to spot a Frisbee on the sun. A paper describing the behemoth by Webster C. Cash of the University of Colorado, CU-Boulder research associates Ann Shipley and Steve Osterman of CASA and Marshall Joy of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center appears in today's issue of Nature.

The new telescope, christened MAXIM, is designed to capture x-ray emissions, as does NASA's Chandra satellite, but with a resolution reaching 0.1 micro arc-second; that's about 1,000,000 times greater than Hubble's 0.1 arc-second resolution. "A millionfold increase in x-ray resolution over today's instruments will make objects in distant stellar systems appear as if they are here in our own solar system," Cash says. "We will see the discs of stars, image the formation of astrophysical jets and watch blobs of matter spiral into black holes." The image at right shows a comparison between Hubble's view of a suspected black hole (top) and an artist's conception of MAXIM's vantage (bottom).

Interferometry--a tactic that pools the information gathered by many telescope mirrors at once--is what gives this latest design its gain over Hubble and Chandra. And NASA, which has contributed about $750,000 so far to the project, is considering use of MAXIM in two missions set for sometime after 2010. First they plan to test the idea of interferometry--common for ground-based telescopes--in space on an upcoming Pathfinder mission. Providing all goes well, a full MAXIM mission would call for launching a fleet of some 33 tiny, mirror-carrying spacecraft, all flying in formation.

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