These Next-Gen Telescopes Will Peer Into The Deep History Of The Universe

Jan 8, 2015

Navin75 via Flickr CC By SA 2.0

By Alexandra Ossola

Astronomers recently held groundbreakings for three huge telescopes in five months, the first of which should begin observations by 2021. The scopes’ light-collecting mirrors—each 80 to 126 feet across—will dwarf those at the W.M. Keck Observatory, whose twin 33-foot mirrors are the benchmark today.

With telescopes this large, one challenge is to develop a design that swings easily across the sky and minimizes the atmosphere’s blurriness. Overcoming these hurdles, engineers have created observatories that will take pictures of the cosmos at resolutions 100 times higher than the current generation of telescopes. Astronomers will use them to study stars born just after the big bang, detect the expansion of the universe in more detail, and hunt for signs of life on planets around other stars. Even more tantalizing is the prospect of the unknown—the questions astronomers don’t yet know to ask but will inevitably stumble upon with new, more powerful tools.

In some ways, three groundbreakings in five months isn’t as surprising as it may seem: Over the past century, design leaps have occurred roughly every 30 years, so this crop is right on schedule. Gary Sanders, project manager for the new Thirty Meter Telescope, explains that three decades is simply the time it takes technology to advance enough to warrant new facilities. Upgraded capabilities come at a price; the observatories will cost more than $1 billion apiece and likely direct resources away from existing facilities, such as Keck. But Sanders is confident that astronomers will make good use of them. “There are only 365 nights in a year,” he says, “and a lot of questions to answer.”


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4 comments on “These Next-Gen Telescopes Will Peer Into The Deep History Of The Universe

  • @OP Astronomers recently held groundbreakings for three huge telescopes in five months, the first of which should begin observations by 2021. The scopes’ light-collecting mirrors—each 80 to 126 feet across—will dwarf those at the W.M. Keck Observatory, whose twin 33-foot mirrors are the benchmark today.

    While these advances in optical telescopes are noteworthy, the really big telescopes are the linked radio telescope arrays.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30743935
    .Thanks to a continent-wide radio telescope, astronomers say they know where Saturn is – to within one mile.

    The calculation is many times more accurate than previous estimations and will be useful for the future study of our solar system and beyond.

    It used signals sent by the spacecraft Cassini, orbiting Saturn since 2004.

    .Ten antennae scattered from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands performed the precise measurement, despite Saturn being nearly a billion miles away.

    This powerful assembly is known as the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a giant telescope in ten parts.

    The findings were reported at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

    “Because of [the VLBA’s] large geographic extent, it has the ability to make very high resolution images – but for this study, the critical thing it can do is measure very precise angles,” explained Dr Dayton Jones of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    Dr Jones and his colleagues tracked Cassini’s position relative to a reference grid of quasars – bright, ancient radio wave sources well beyond our galaxy.



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  • I wonder if you could produce a flat plate that had infrared or optical sensors on it, pixel sized, that were highly directional, or that could record the direction of an incoming photon. Then you could make telescopes arbitrarily large just by floating great sheets of this stuff in space, roughly pointing at the target of interest. You would not need a lens. You could think of it as the analog of dragonfly compound eyes. You could electronically ignore signals from parts of the plate with imperfections.



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