Rise of the Super Telescopes: The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope

The 100 meter OWL telescope would have operated in the open air, and then been stored in its enclosure when not in use. Image: ESO Telescope Systems Division

We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.

In this series we’ll look at 6 of the world’s Super Telescopes:

The Overwhelmingly Large Telescope

The OWL (Overwhelmingly Large Telescope) was a gargantuan telescope proposed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The OWL was going to be a 100 meter monstrosity, which would dwarf anything in operation at the time. Sadly, OWL was eventually cancelled.

For now, anyway.

At the time that OWL was first proposed—in the late 1990’s—scientific studies showed that huge telescopes would be necessary to advance our knowledge. OWL promised to help us unlock the mystery of dark matter, peer back in time to witness the birth of the first stars and galaxies, and to directly image the atmospheres of exoplanets. It’s easy to see why people were excited by OWL.

This image simulates the increased resolving power of the OWL compared to its contemporaries. Image: ESO Telescope Systems Division

By 2005, the OWL study was completed and reviewed by a panel of experts. At that time, the concept was validated as a cost-effective way to build an Extremely Large Telescope (ELT). However, as the wheels kept turning, and a price tag of € 1.5 billion was attached to it, the ESO backed away.

OWL’s design called for a 100 meter diameter mirror, built out of 3264 segments. It would have had unequalled light-gathering capacity, and the ability to resolve details down to a milli-arc second. (A milli-arc second is approximately the size of a dime, placed on top of the Eiffel Tower, and viewed from New York City.) That’s extremely impressive to say the least. And OWL would have operated in both visible light and infrared.

Everything about OWL’s design was modular, in an effort to keep costs down. Image: ESO Telescope Systems Division

The problem with OWL was the cost, not the design feasibility. Engineers still think the design is feasible. In fact, the construction of the mirrors was pretty well-understood, and perhaps the most challenging part of the OWL was the adaptive optics required.

It’s a fact of large telescopes that they have to be constantly adjusted to produce sharp images. This requires adaptive optics. The adaptive optics required for OWL would have pushed the state-of-the-art technology at the time.

Adaptive optics is a method of overcoming the distortions that affect light as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. For extremely sensitive telescopes like the OWL, the atmosphere of Earth is problematic. The photons coming from the distant reaches of the Universe can be garbled by the atmosphere as they approach the telescope. Telescopes are built on mountain-tops to reduce how much atmosphere photons have to travel through, but that’s not enough.

This video explains how adaptive optics work, and how they helped the Keck telescope make new discoveries.

OWL’s mirror segments would have to be aligned to within a fraction of the wavelength (0.0005 mm for visible light) in order for the telescope to deliver good images. OWL’s adaptive optics would have achieved this by adjusting each of OWL’s 3264 segments rapidly, sometimes several times per second.

OWL’s design called for modularity, or “serial, industrialized fabrication of identical building blocks” to reduce costs. The manufacture of extremely large telescopes is expensive, but so are the transportation costs. All of the components have to be built in engineering and manufacturing centres, then shipped to, and assembled on, fairly remote mountain tops. OWL’s components were designed to be shipped in standard shipping containers, which simplified that aspect of its construction.

This graphic shows the sizes of the world’s telescopes superimposed over the OWL. By Cmglee – Own workiThe source code of this SVG is valid., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33613161

In fact, OWL could have begun operation before all of its mirrors were in place, and would have grown in power as more mirror segments were built and integrated. (Other telescopes, like the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will be in operation before all of the mirrors are installed.)

In the end, OWL’s cost became too great, and the project was cancelled. The ESO moved on to the 39.3 meter European Extremely Large Telescope. But all of the work done on the design of OWL was not lost.

This artist’s impression shows the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in its enclosure. The E-ELT will be a 39-metre aperture optical and infrared telescope sited on Cerro Armazones in the Chilean Atacama Desert, 20 kilometres from ESO’s Very Large Telescope on Cerro Paranal, which is visible in the distance towards the left. The design for the E-ELT shown here is preliminary. ESO/L. Calçada

Everything that we learn about telescope design trickles down to our next-generation of telescopes. That’s true whether designs like OWL get built or not. We’ll just keep building on our success, and keep building larger and more powerful telescopes.

The adaptive optics that OWL required were a challenge. But huge advances have been made on that front. And in the way of things, the manufacturing costs have likely come down as well.

OWL itself may never be built, but other ‘scopes are on the way. Telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the European Extremely Large Telescope hold the same promise that OWL did.

And in the end, the contributions of those and other ‘scopes might surpass those promised by OWL.

Extreme Telescopes: Unique Observatories Around the World

A time exposure of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute used with perimssion).

In 1888, astronomer Simon Newcomb uttered now infamous words, stating that “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” This was an age just prior to identifying faint nebulae as separate galaxies, Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity, and an era when a hypothetical substance called the aether was said to permeate the cosmos.

Newcomb would scarcely recognize astronomy today. Modern observatories span the electromagnetic spectrum and are unlocking the secrets of a universe both weird and wonderful. Modern day astronomers rarely peer through an eyepiece, were it even possible to do so with such bizarre instruments. What follows are some of the most unique professional ground-based observatories in operation today that are pushing back our understanding of the universe we inhabit.

The four gamma-ray telescopes in the VERITAS array. (Credit: VERITAS/The National Science Foundation).
The four gamma-ray telescopes in the VERITAS array. (Credit: VERITAS/The National Science Foundation).

VERITAS: Based at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in southern Arizona, the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS) is an observatory designed to observe high energy gamma-rays. Its array consists of four 12-metre aperture reflectors each comprised of 350 mirror scintillators. Each VERITAS array has a 3.5° degree field of view and the array has been fully operational since 2007. VERITAS has been used to study active galactic nuclei, gamma-ray bursts, and the Crab Nebula pulsar.

Looking down one of IceCube's detector bore holes. (Credit: IceCube Collaboration/NSF).
Looking down one of IceCube’s detector bore holes. (Credit: IceCube Collaboration/NSF).

IceCube: Not the rapper, IceCube is a neutrino detector in based at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. IceCube watches for neutrino interactions by use of thousands of photomultipliers suspended up to 2.45 kilometres down into the Antarctic ice sheet. With a total of 86 detector strings completed in 2011, IceCube is currently the world’s largest neutrino observatory and is part of the worldwide Supernova Early Warning System. IceCube will also complement WMAP and Planck data and can actually “see” the shadowing effect of the Moon blocking cosmic ray muons.

The Liquid Mirror Telescope used at the NASA Orbital Debris Observatory. (Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)
The Liquid Mirror Telescope used at the NASA Orbital Debris Observatory. (Credit: NASA Orbital Debris Program Office)

Liquid Mirror Telescopes: One of the more bizarre optical designs out there in the world of astronomy, liquid mirror telescopes employ a large rotating dish of mercury to form a parabolic mirror. The design is cost effective but does have the slight drawback of having to aim directly at the zenith while a swath of sky passes over head. NASA employed a 3-metre liquid mirror telescope as part of its Orbital Debris observatory based near Cloudcroft, New Mexico from 1995-2002. The largest one in the world (and the 18th largest optical telescope overall) is the 6-metre Large Zenith Telescope in the University of British Columbia’s Malcolm Knapp Research Forest.

An aerial view of LIGO Hanford. (Credit:  Gary White/Mark Coles/California Institue of Technology/LIGO/NSF).
An aerial view of LIGO Hanford. (Credit: Gary White/Mark Coles/California Institute of Technology/LIGO/NSF).

LIGO: Designed to detect incoming gravity waves caused by pulsar-black hole mergers, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is comprised of a pair of facilities with one based in Hanford, Washington and another in Livingston, Louisiana. Each detector is consists of a pair of 2 kilometre Fabry-Pérot arms and measures a laser beam shot through them with ultra-high precision.  Two geographically separate interferometers are needed to isolate out terrestrial interference as well as give a direction of an incoming gravity wave on the celestial sphere. To date, no gravity waves have been detected by LIGO, but said detection is expected to open up a whole new field of astronomy.

The VLBA antanna located at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. (Credit: Image courtesy of the NRAO/AUI/NSF).
The VLBA antenna located at St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. (Credit: Image courtesy of the NRAO/AUI/NSF).

The Very Long Baseline Array: A series of 10 radio telescopes with a resolution the size of a continent, the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) employs observatories across the continental United States, Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Mauna Kea, Hawaii. This is effectively the longest radio interferometer in the world with a baseline of over 8,600 kilometres and a resolution of under one milliarcseconds at 4 to 0.7 centimetre wavelengths. The VLBA has been used to study H2O megamasers in Active Galactic Nuclei and measure ultra-precise positions and proper motions of stars and galaxies.

LOFAR: Located just north of the town of Exloo in the Netherlands,  The LOw Frequency Radio Array is a phased array 25,000 antennas with an effective collection area of 300,000 square metres. This makes LOFAR one of the largest single connected radio telescopes in existence. LOFAR is also a proof on concept for its eventual successor, the Square Kilometre Array to be built jointly in South Africa, Australia & New Zealand. Key projects involving LOFAR include extragalactic surveys, research into the nature of cosmic rays and studies of space weather.

One of the water tank detectors in Pierre Auger observatory. (Wikimedia Image in the Public Domain).
One of the water tank detectors in Pierre Auger observatory. (Wikimedia Image in the Public Domain).

The Pierre Auger Observatory: A cosmic ray observatory located in Malargüe, Argentina, the Pierre Auger Observatory was completed in 2008. This unique instrument consists of 1600 water tank Cherenkov radiation detectors spaced out over 3,000 square kilometres along with four complimenting fluorescence detectors.  Results from Pierre Auger have thus far included discovery of a possible link between some of the highest energy events observed and active galactic nuclei.

The GONG installation at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican observatory in Chile. (Credit: GONG/NSO/AURA/NSF).
The GONG installation at the Cerro Tololo Interamerican observatory in Chile. (Credit: GONG/NSO/AURA/NSF).

GONG: Keeping an eye on the Sun is the goal of the Global Oscillation Network Group, a worldwide network of six solar telescopes. Established from an initial survey of 15 sites in 1991, GONG provides real-time data that compliments space-based efforts to monitor the Sun by the SDO, SHO, and STEREO A & B spacecraft. GONG scientists can even monitor the solar farside by use of helioseismology!

A portion of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute. Used with permission).
A portion of the Allen Telescope Array. (Credit: Seth Shostak/The SETI Institute. Used with permission).

The Allen Telescope Array: Located at Hat Creek 470 kilometres northeast of San Francisco, this array will eventually consist of 350 Gregorian focus radio antennas that will support SETI’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 42 antennas were made operational in 2007, and a 2011 budget shortfall put the status of the array in limbo until a preliminary financing goal of $200,000 was met in August 2011.

The YBJ Cosmic Ray Observatory: Located high on the Tibetan plateau, Yangbajing International Cosmic Ray Observatory is a joint Japanese-Chinese effort. Much like Pierre-Auger, the YBJ Cosmic Ray Observatory employs scintillators spread out along with high speed cameras to watch for cosmic ray interactions. YBJ observes the sky in cosmic rays continuously and has captured sources from the Crab nebula pulsar and found a correlation between solar & interplanetary magnetic fields and the Sun’s own “cosmic ray shadow”. The KOSMA 3-metre radio telescope is also being moved from Switzerland to the YBJ observatory in Tibet.