The Next Generation of Telescopes And The Mysteries They’ll Reveal

The Next Generation of Telescopes And The Mysteries They’ll Reveal


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The year was 1609 when Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo utilised a telescope he built himself to survey our vast night sky. Through a little cosmos keyhole, he became one of the first to witness our moon’s mountains and craters; the sunspots of our sun; the four moons of Jupiter; and a ribbon of dispersed light later revealed as the myriad stars of our own Milky Way galaxy.

Onwards from these early discoveries, humanity began to unravel one celestial secret after another. We saw the faint glow of distant stars, nebulae and galaxies – and had the groundbreaking revelation that we on Earth revolved around the Sun, not it around us. We had taken baby steps into what has flourished into a grand era of space exploration – one only continually propelled today by our advances in technology.

The Hubble Space Telescope, one of Earth’s most productive and renowned pieces of such technology, recently commemorated its 25th year in orbit. To celebrate, the telescope released an awe-inspiring, high-definition ‘revisit’ of the M16 Eagle Nebula – otherwise known as the ‘Pillars of Creation’ – as well as an insanely zoom-able, 1.5GB panoramic view of the approaching Andromeda Galaxy.

But despite the marvel of these images, the reality is that the old girl is getting old. In continual need of repairs and still running on an Intel 486 microprocessor from 1989 – that’s as old as Daniel Radcliffe – the Hubble is soon becoming outdated and incapable of retrieving data needed by modern astronomers and scientists.

But the near future promises a new generation of telescopes to replace their aging parents. Itching to spear their eyes into the dark, these revolutionary machines are enlivened with the same philosophy as the Hubble – to break us free of the skyway’s chains to explore the dark beyond.

Also they’re turning astronomers into giddy schoolgirls.


The E-ELT – European Extreme Large Telescope:

It’s no wonder people hailing from Chile are so grounded and lovely; the lucky bastards were raised staring up at this every night:

Chilean Night Sky

The reason for this spectacular sky-scape in Chile is that their environmental conditions render the atmosphere incredibly clear. This, and the fact some areas are extremely radio-quiet, have caused it to become one of most favoured locations by astronomers for the next generation of telescopes.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is in charge of building the E-ELT, otherwise known as the European Extremely Large Telescope, the largest optical/near infrared telescope to have ever been constructed.

It was aptly named, seeing how scientists are not exactly known for their literary creativity. And don’t say ‘Hey! They are so!’ because they’re not – the E-ELT’s Chilean sibling is the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and will work alongside the proposed Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).

However, scientists are known for their scientific furor, and to build the E-ELT they rightly decided to blow off the top of the 3,060m-high Cerro Armazones mountain range with dynamite.

When hopefully operational by 2024, the E-ELT will use a gargantuan 39-meter primary mirror – completely trumping the 8-meter mirror of its optical predecessor, the Very Large Telescope.

When finished, it will be about the size of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janerio, comprised from 798 hexagonal 1.4m wide segments. It also will include some revolutionary technology like it’s adaptive and active optics, a collation of over 6,000 actuators that can shape the mirrors in real time, a thousand times a second, to adapt to the atmosphere.

Artist’s impression of the E-ELTArtist’s rendition of the E-ELT atop the Cerro Armazones. CREDIT: ESO/L. Calçada

Dr. Jochen Liske, a Programme Scientist for the E-ELT, said one of the most exciting prospects of the telescope was to use it to study dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe.

“It’s something we don’t understand yet, and it’s very likely that there will be new physics involved,” Dr. Liske said. “But one very cool thing about the E-ELT, something I’m quite excited for, is to actually be able to watch the universe expanding in real time.

“We already know the light from galaxies gets ‘redshifted’ as it travels further across space to us, with it’s hue telling us how far away the object is. But redshift isn’t a ‘static’ change, the universe is dynamic and expanding, so the rate of these redshift properties are changing”.

“The E-ELT will be able to make such precise measurements that it can measure these changes over a time-scale of about 10 or 20 years”.

If possible, this will be the first time anyone has made a direct observation of the universe’s expansion using this method.

Dr. Liske says that despite his coworker’s skepticism of the E-ELT’s capacity to accomplish this feat, he believes it will work – and if it does, the E-ELT will be the only machine capable of doing it.”

“It’ll be like catching the universe in a speed-trap, with a radar gun”.

The E-ELT will be big news for astronomers, and they’re already so excited about it that they’ve even provided us with a virtual tour and a genuine live image of the construction site every houreven though there’s barely anything there yet.


The SKA – Square Kilometer Array:


Unless you’re a radio astronomer, or obsessed with the Carl Sagan inspired film ‘Contact’, you may not of heard of a radio telescope before – let alone the SKA. Well if you haven’t, you can start right now – because it’s damn cool.

But how does a radio telescope differ to an optical one? Well the main difference is that instead of seeing in visible light, which we see as colour, a radio telescope sees in radio waves. These are right down the end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and have the advantage of being bigger than atoms. This means that sometimes they can push right past them, enabling radio telescopes to see things in space even when its cloudy, or when they’re obscured by cosmic dust or gas.

When fully operational in 2024, the SKA will be the largest radio telescope ever constructed on Earth – with a data-collecting area of one square kilometer, hence the genius name.

Diverging from our usual understanding of telescopes though, the SKA won’t be one large connected machine. Instead, the SKA will be made up of thousands of small, disparate radio telescopes. These are already being built in some of Earth’s more radio-quiet and atmospherically clear environments, such as in South Africa and our very own Australian outback.

SKA Dish Survey

Artist’s rendition of SKA Australia Survey Telescopes. CREDIT: SKA Organisation

This allows SKA to use a technique called interferometry: the collection of data received individually, which is then collated and processed by an incomprehensibly powerful supercomputer – the SKA’s creators describe its power as analogous to one hundred million regular computers.

When complete, the SKA will be no ordinary telescope.

It will be 10,000 faster at surveying and its sensitivity 50 times higher than any preexisting radio telescope on Earth. To put this in perspective, the SKA will be capable of detecting the tiny disturbance of an airport radar a distance tens of lights years away. Let’s remind ourselves that the distance of only one light year – the distance light travels in 365 days – is approximately 9,461,000,000,000kms (the entire diameter of Earth is only 12,756kms!)

Dr. James Green, a Project Scientist working on the SKA, said the telescope’s sensitivity would also allow them to probe fundamental mysteries of the universe, such as the structure of galaxies and terrestrial life.

“When considering something like the colossal structure of galaxies, previous radio telescopes have never been able to see much,” Dr. Green said.

“But with the SKA, we’ll be able to look at the larger scale affect of something called cosmic magnetism, the magnetic fields between galaxies. For the first time we’ll be able to look at whether this has an affect on the overall structure and how they develop.”



The Millennium Simulation of the large-scale galaxy structure. CREDIT: MPA


Beyond this, the sensitivity of the SKA will also be used in the perpetual hunt for life other than our own.

To contribute to this effort, the SKA is not only capable of scanning for incredibly distant alien radio transmissions, but is insanely able to detect amino acids – the building blocks of life – across friggin’ space. The SKA accomplishes this mind-bending feat by distinguishing the frequencies of their spectral signatures.

“These sorts of projects would normally take decades to accomplish – too long that nobody can ever do them”, Dr. Green said.

“Whereas now with the SKA, people can actually attempt these discoveries. It’s a very exciting thing to be a part of.”



TJWT – The James Webb Telescope

Webb Telescope

Dubbed the “successor to the Hubble”, The James Webb Telescope has some big shoes to fill.

An international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Webb is a project inspired by the legacy of data retrieved by the Hubble Space Telescope.

But there is a need for another space-based optical telescope, because of the earliest celestial objects moving away from us so fast they’re ‘redshifted’. This is a result of the wavelength of their light becoming longer – and hence it ‘shifts’ into infrared light.

Because our old Hubble sees primarily in visible and ultra-violet light, there is a pressing need for a telescope like the James Webb Telescope, which will see primarily in infrared.


Webb Wavelength

Portion of electromagnetic spectrum showing Hubble vs. Webb vs. SKA. CREDIT: NASA


So scientists are blasting the Webb – a machine costing a potential $8 billion dollars – into orbit on October 2018 on top of the rocket Ariane 5! Woo!

The big golden honeycomb on the Webb’s back is a 6.5-wide primary mirror comprised of 18 segments – significantly less than that of the SKA or E-ELT – but still almost tripling the Hubble’s current 2.4m wide mirror. Plus, optical telescopes don’t require as large a mirror to attain their data – especially those operating beyond Earth’s atmosphere. And you try shipping a mirror the size of a small mountain off into space.

To help keep the sun’s blinding heat out of its eyes, the Webb will have a one-in-a-kind sunshield membrane, shown below, spanning about 22m x 12m – about half the size of a Boeing 737. It will reflect heat so well that you will be able to boil water on side, and liquefy nitrogen on another.



When orbiting at approx. 1.5 million kilometers around Earth (four times further then the moon), the Webb will be in prime position to do some exciting research.

One prospect for the Webb, as well for telescopes such as the E-ELT, is to look upon the early epoch of our first stars and galaxies.

While our current equipment has looked upon some incredibly ancient stars, the oldest one we’ve ever dated is just shy of 13.7 billion years old. While this is one super senile star, it isn’t one of the first generation to emerge after the ‘Dark Ages’ – a time when electrons and protons hadn’t yet formed into the Hydrogen comprising the first stars of the universe.

Universe Expansion

Evolution of the universe. CREDIT: ESO


Beyond this, the Webb will also work alongside the E-ELT and NASA’s current Kepler telescope – which recently confirmed their 1,000th, livable exoplanet – in the ongoing perusal of space for habitable exoplanets in 2015.

But telescopes like the Kepler are more just ‘discovery’ telescopes, whereas the advent of the Webb will enable astronomers to properly study the atmosphere of these wandering planets. The higher resolution of the Webb will also increase our chances of finding exoplanets closer to us, meaning we may find life on a nearby star.


So where does Australia fit into all this?

Well, it’s looking like we don’t.

Australia’s involvement in the next frontier of space exploration will be hampered by our simple lack of funds. The decision of the Federal government in July to cut $114 million from Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Organisation (CSIRO) – resulted in over 850 staff cuts – which even including Nobel Prize contender San Thang.

And we can’t even just blame Abbott either unfortunately, as the ALP loved cutting the CSIRO’s budget too – every year from its first in 2008 to its last in 2013.

This means that the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division – the same organisation that revolutionised the world by inventing wi-fi – will have lost over 1,400 of their staff over the last two years alone.

CSIRO are being treated like any other public service organisation, with their budget so skint that its scientists can’t afford to attend conferences, or join global organisations like the ESO – meaning no Australians are involved in building the E-ELT.

Even the 15% cuts to radio astronomy, which impacted operations on the Parkes telescope (from that movie The Dish), endangered the development of the SKA in Australia.

Instead these funds, which should be probing the primordial secrets of our very existence, are going into things like agriculture and biosecurity fields – all well and good, but isn’t that strangely reminiscent of Interstellar? Anyone?





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