Here Come The Thirty Metre Telescopes

Thirty Metre Optical and Infrared ground-based telescopes should be seeing first light in about 2011, and be fully operational by 2015. Four such instruments are in the works, CalTech?s TMT, Gemini?s GSMT, Canada?s VLOT, and Europe?s ELT. With 100 times the speed of Hubble, and three times the resolution of the Keck instruments, these tools will help unlock some new keys to our understanding the cosmos.

Earth-based thirty-metre telescopes are being funded, and designed now. Caltech’s TMT project will undergo design reviews in 2006 and 2007 with full construction funding scheduled to be given by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in July 2008. Gordon Moore [of Moore?s Law fame] was the founder of Intel. His foundation supplied a 17 million dollar grant to design the TMT in October 2003. In total the instrument is expected to cost about 800 million dollars.

Adaptive optics have proved a tremendous success, and are one reason that there will be no replacement for the Hubble telescope as a space based tool for covering the optical and near infrared part of the spectrum. These three instruments will be getting first light with some segments about the same time that the 6.5 metre James Webb Space Telescope will begin its science mission in 2011-2.

Robert Gilmozzi?s OverWhelmingly Large Telescope [OWL project] is also trying to get first light by 2015, but faces more financial and technical obstacles than the 30-meter instruments. If the OWL doesn?t get built in this go-around, similar designs will likely be used for the following decade.

These instruments will be able to perform many tasks that the current generation of instruments either can?t do, or would require prohibitive amounts of observing time to accomplish including the following:

  • Map the density and heavy element content of the intergalactic media from nearby to beyond z=1.5 by measuring the details absorption spectra of 100,000 QSOs.
  • Observe the galaxy formation process by studying the movement of ionized gas clouds from z=3 to 8. Note these instruments can discern sources as close as 150 parsecs apart at z=3.
  • Chart the distortion of images of background galaxies when looking through galactic clusters to map the presence of dark matter to an unprecedented level of detail.
  • Chart the star populations of nearby galaxies observing element abundances, and determining formation histories.
  • Observe planet formation around the nearest thousand new stars. This instrument will be able to resolve to 0.4AU when looking at objects 33 light-years away.
  • Detect and characterize mature planets around nearby stars.

Caltech just put up a job posting for an Observatory Scientist for the TMT project. The Thirty metre telescopes are on their way.

Written by John A. Cross