(CNN) -- What were the conditions of the universe the first few minutes after the Big Bang? How do galaxies evolve? In the quest for answers to such fundamental questions, astronomers plan to train a new eye on the universe early next year.
The Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) will specialize in the unique task of looking at light in the far ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic spectrum -- light that is invisible to the human eye. No other current telescopes can observe this spectral region.
Much of this ultraviolet light gets blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, but FUSE will be the latest in a series of telescopes placed above the atmosphere to obtain entirely different views of the universe.
The 18-foot (5.5-meter) long, 3,000-pound (1,360 kg) satellite is scheduled to launch February 18 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, aboard a Delta II rocket. It will operate in low-Earth orbit for at least three years.
The spacecraft was developed for NASA by John Hopkins University in collaboration with the space agencies of Canada and France. It is the first time a mission of this scope has been developed and operated entirely by a university.
Astronomers hope data obtained by FUSE will enable them to learn more about the secrets of galaxy evolution and star formation by analyzing clouds of gases between stars in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies.
Such information will help astronomers to understand how galaxies evolve and what the universe was like when it was only a few minutes old.
"FUSE will investigate a fossil nucleus of the universe, deuterium, which was created three minutes after the Big Bang," said Warren Moos, FUSE's principal investigator and a professor of physics and astronomy. "Others have investigated this, but these explorations have been like attacking an enemy in a straight line. FUSE will swarm the target from all angles and provide information never before possible."
"It's like uncovering a really big piece in a complex jigsaw puzzle," Moos said.
The FUSE instrument set consists of a high-resolution spectrograph -- a device that disperses light into its component wavelengths -- and the Fine Error Sensor (FES), the "eye" of the satellite, used for pointing and guiding.
The FES, capable of seeing stars about 10,000 times fainter that those visible to the naked eye on a clear night, will produce the only "pictures" that FUSE will take.
But the real job of FUSE will be to observe the spectra of astronomical objects in far-ultraviolet light. Analysis of those observations, scientists say, will provide them with a wealth of new information about the objects being observed.
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