How the Next Generation of Ground-Based Super-Telescopes will Directly Observe Exoplanets

Over the past few decades, the number of extra-solar planets that have been detected and confirmed has grown exponentially. At present, the existence of 3,778 exoplanets have been confirmed in 2,818 planetary systems, with an additional 2,737 candidates awaiting confirmation. With this volume of planets available for study, the focus of exoplanet research has started to shift from detection towards characterization.
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They Just Began Casting the Giant Magellan Telescope’s 5th Mirror. What a Monster Job.

The fifth mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is now being cast, according to an announcement from the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO), the body behind the project. The GMT is a ground-breaking segmented telescope consisting of 7 gigantic mirrors, and is being built at the Las Campanas Observatory, in Atacama, Chile.

The mirrors for the GMT are being cast at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, at the University of Arizona. This lab is the world centre when it comes to building large mirrors for telescopes. But in a lab known for ground-breaking, precision manufacturing, the GMT’s mirrors are pushing the engineering to its limits.

This illustration shows what the Giant Magellan Telescope will look like when it comes online. The fifth of its seven mirror segments is being cast now. Each of the segments is a 20 ton piece of glass. Image: Giant Magellan
This illustration shows what the Giant Magellan Telescope will look like when it comes online. The fifth of its seven mirror segments is being cast now. Each of the segments is a 20 ton piece of glass. Image: Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation

Seven separate mirrors, each the same size (8.4 meters,) will make up the GMT’s primary mirror. One mirror will be in the centre, and six will be arranged in a circle around it. Each one of these mirrors is a 20 ton glass behemoth, and each one is cast separately. Once the seven are manufactured (and one extra, just in case) they will be assembled at the observatory site.

The result will be an optical, light-gathering surface almost 24.5 meters (80 ft.) in diameter. That is an enormous telescope, and it’s taking extremely precise engineering and manufacturing to build these mirrors.

The glass for the mirrors is custom-manufactured, low-expansion glass from Japan. This glass comes as blocks, and each mirror requires exactly 17,481 kg of these glass blocks. A custom built furnace and mold heats the glass to 1165°C (2129°F) for several hours. The glass liquefies and flows into the mold. During this time, the mold is rotated at up to 5 rpm. Then the rotation is slowed, and for several months the glass cools in the mold.

After lengthy cooling, the glass can be polished. The tolerances for the mirrors, and the final shape they must take, requires very careful, extremely accurate polishing. The first mirror was cast in 2005, and in 2011 it was still being polished.

The mirrors for the GMT are not flat; they’re described as “potato chips.” They’re aspherical and parabaloidal. They have to be surface polished to an accuracy of 25 nanometers, which is a fraction of the wavelength of light.

Precision manufacturing is at the heart of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The surface of each mirror must be polished to within a fraction of the wavelength of light. Image: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization
Precision manufacturing is at the heart of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The surface of each mirror must be polished to within a fraction of the wavelength of light. Image: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization

“Casting the mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope is a huge undertaking, and we are very proud of the UA’s leading role creating this new resource for scientific discovery. The GMT partnership and Caris Mirror Lab are outstanding examples of how we can tackle complex challenges with innovative solutions,” said UA President Robert C. Robbins. “The University of Arizona has such an amazing tradition of excellence in space exploration, and I have been constantly impressed by the things our faculty, staff, and students in astronomy and space sciences can accomplish.”

Mirror construction for the GMT is a multi-stage process. The first mirror was completed several years ago and is in storage. Three others are in various stages of grinding and polishing. The glass for mirror 6 is in storage awaiting casting, and the glass for mirror 7 is on order from Japan.

Once completed, the GMT will be situated in Atacama, at the Las Campanas Observatory, where high-elevation and clear skies make for excellent seeing conditions. First light is planned for the mid 2020’s.

When the mirrors for the GMT are completed, they are transported in a special container with shock absorbers and insulation. In this image, the first completed mirror is moved from the Caris Mirror Lab to storage several miles away. Image: GMTO Corp.
When the mirrors for the GMT are completed, they are transported in a special container with shock absorbers and insulation. In this image, the first completed mirror is moved from the Caris Mirror Lab to storage several miles away. Image: GMTO Corp.

The GMT will be largest telescope in existence, at least until the Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope supersede it.

“Creating the largest telescope in history is a monumental endeavor, and the GMT will be among the largest privately-funded scientific initiatives to date,” said Taft Armandroff, Professor of Astronomy and Director of the McDonald Observatory at The University of Texas at Austin, and Vice-Chair of the GMTO Corporation Board of Directors. “With this next milestone, and with the leadership, technical, financial and scientific prowess of the members of the GMTO partnership, we continue on the path to the completion of this great observatory.”

The power of the GMT will allow it to directly image extra-solar planets. That alone is enough to get anyone excited. But the GMT will also study things like the formation of stars, planets, and disks; the assembly and evolution of galaxies; fundamental physics; and first light and re-ionization.

The Giant Magellan Telescope is one of the world’s Super Telescopes that we covered in this series of articles. The Super Telescopes include the:

  • Giant Magellan Telescope
  • James Webb Space Telescope
  • Thirty Meter Telescope
  • European Extremely Large Telescope
  • Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
  • Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope

You can also watch our videos on the Super Telescopes: Part 1: Ground Telescopes, and Part 2: Space Telescopes.

Rise of the Super Telescopes: Why We Build Them

This illustration shows what the Giant Magellan Telescope will look like when it comes online. The fifth of its seven mirror segments is being cast now. Each of the segments is a 20 ton piece of glass. Image: Giant Magellan

One night 400 years ago, Galileo pointed his 2 inch telescope at Jupiter and spotted 3 of its moons. On subsequent nights, he spotted another, and saw one of the moons disappear behind Jupiter. With those simple observations, he propelled human understanding onto a path it still travels.

Galileo’s observations set off a revolution in astronomy. Prior to his observations of Jupiter’s moons, the prevailing belief was that the entire Universe rotated around the Earth, which lay at the center of everything. That’s a delightfully childish viewpoint, in retrospect, but it was dogma at the time.

Until Galileo’s telescope, this Earth-centric viewpoint, called Aristotelian cosmology, made sense. To all appearances, we were at the center of the action. Which just goes to show you how wrong we can be.

But once it became clear that Jupiter had other bodies orbiting it, our cherished position at the center of the Universe was doomed.

Galileo Galilei set off a revolution in astronomy when he used his telescope to observe moons orbiting Jupiter. By Justus Sustermans - http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/pages/mnuExplore/PaintingDetail.cfm?ID=BHC2700, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230543
Galileo Galilei set off a revolution in astronomy when he used his telescope to observe moons orbiting Jupiter. By Justus Sustermans – http://www.nmm.ac.uk/mag/pages/mnuExplore/PaintingDetail.cfm?ID=BHC2700, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230543

Galileo’s observations were an enormous challenge to our understanding of ourselves at the time, and to the authorities at the time. He was forced to recant what he had seen, and he was put under house arrest. But he never really backed down from the observations he made with his 2 inch telescope. How could he?

Now, of course, there isn’t so much hostility towards people with telescopes. As time went on, larger and more powerful telescopes were built, and we’ve gotten used to our understanding going through tumultuous changes. We expect it, even anticipate it.

In our current times, Super Telescopes rule the day, and their sizes are measured in meters, not inches. And when new observations challenge our understanding of things, we cluster around out of curiosity, and try to work our way through it. We don’t condemn the results and order scientists to keep quiet.

The first of the Super Telescopes, as far as most of us are concerned, is the Hubble Space Telescope. From its perch in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Hubble has changed our understanding of the Universe on numerous fronts. With its cameras, and the steady stream of mesmerizing images those cameras deliver, a whole generation of people have been exposed to the beauty and mystery of the cosmos.

The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX - http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254
The Hubble Space Telescope could be considered the first of the Super Telescopes. In this image it is being released from the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990. Image: By NASA/IMAX – http://mix.msfc.nasa.gov/abstracts.php?p=1711, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6061254

Hubble has gazed at everything, from our close companion the Moon, all the way to galaxies billions of light years away. It’s spotted a comet breaking apart and crashing into Jupiter, dust storms on Mars, and regions of energetic star-birth in other galaxies. But Hubble’s time may be coming to an end soon, and other Super Telescopes are on the way.

Nowadays, Super Telescopes are expensive megaprojects, often involving several nations. They’re built to pursue specific lines of inquiry, such as:

  • What is the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy? How are they distributed in the Universe and what role do they play?
  • Are there other planets like Earth, and solar systems like ours? Are there other habitable worlds?
  • Are we alone or is there other life somewhere?
  • How do planets, solar systems, and galaxies form and evolve?

Some of the Super Telescopes will be on Earth, some will be in space. Some have enormous mirrors made up of individual, computer-controlled segments. The Thirty Meter Telescope has almost 500 of these segments, while the European Extremely Large Telescope has almost 800 of them. Following a different design, the Giant Magellan Telescope has only seven segments, but each one is over 8 meters in diameter, and each one weighs in at a whopping 20 tons of glass each.

This artistic bird's-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in all its glory, on top of the Chilean Cerro Armazones. The telescope is currently under construction and its first light is targeted for 2024.
This artistic bird’s-eye view shows the dome of the ESO European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in all its glory, on top of the Chilean Cerro Armazones. The telescope is currently under construction and its first light is targeted for 2024.

Some of the Super Telescopes see in UV or Infrared, while others can see in visible light. Some see in several spectrums. The most futuristic of them all, the Large Ultra-Violet, Optical, and Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR), will be a massive space telescope situated a million-and-a-half kilometers away, with a 16 meter segmented mirror that dwarfs that of the Hubble, at a mere 2.4 meters.

Some of the Super Telescopes will discern the finest distant details, while another, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, will complete a ten-year survey of the entire available sky, repeatedly imaging the same area of sky over and over. The result will be a living, dynamic map of the sky showing change over time. That living map will be available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

A group photo of the team behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The group gathered to celebrate the casting of the 'scope's 27.5 ft diameter mirror. The LSST will create a living, detailed, dynamic map of the sky and make it available to anyone. Image: LSST Corporation
A group photo of the team behind the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. The group gathered to celebrate the casting of the ‘scope’s 27.5 ft diameter mirror. The LSST will create a living, detailed, dynamic map of the sky and make it available to anyone. Image: LSST Corporation

We’re in for exciting times when it comes to our understanding of the cosmos. We’ll be able to watch planets forming around young stars, glimpse the earliest ages of the Universe, and peer into the atmospheres of distant exoplanets looking for signs of life. We may even finally crack the code of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and understand their role in the Universe.

Along the way there will be surprises, of course. There always are, and it’s the unanticipated discoveries and observations that fuel our sense of intellectual adventure.

The Super Telescopes are technological masterpieces. They couldn’t be built without the level of technology we have now, and in fact, the development of Super Telescopes help drives our technology forward.

But they all have their roots in Galileo and his simple act of observing with a 2-inch telescope. That, and the curiosity about nature that inspired him.

The Rise of the Super Telescopes Series:

Rise of the Super Telescopes: The Giant Magellan Telescope

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 Giant Magellan Telescope

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is being built in Chile, at the Las Campanas Observatory, home of the GMT’s predecessors the Magellan Telescopes. The Atacama region of Chile is an excellent location for telescopes because of its superb seeing conditions. It’s a high-altitude desert, so it’s extremely dry and cool there, with little light pollution.

The GMT is being built by the USA, Australia, South Korea, and Brazil. It started facility construction in 2015, and first light should be in the early 2020’s.

The heart of the Giant Magellan Telescope is the segmented primary mirror. Image: Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation

Segmented mirrors are the peak of technology when it comes to super telescopes, and the GMT is built around this technology.

The GMT’s primary mirror consists of 7 separate mirrors: one central mirror surrounded by 6 other mirrors. Together they form an optical surface that is 24.5 meters (80 ft.) in diameter. That means the GMT will have a total light collecting area of 368 square meters, or almost 4,000 square feet. The GMT will outperform the Hubble Space Telescope by having a resolving power 10 times greater.

There’s a limit to the size of single mirrors that can be built, and the 8.4 meter mirrors in the GMT are at the limits of construction methods. That’s why segmented systems are in use in the GMT, and in other super telescopes being designed and built around the world.

These mirrors are modern feats of engineering. Each one is made of 20 tons of glass, and takes years to build. The first mirror was cast in 2005, and was still being polished 6 years later. In fact, the mirrors are so massive, that they need 6 months to cool when they come out of casting.

They aren’t just flat, simple mirrors. They’re described as potato chips, rather than being flat. They’re aspheric, meaning the mirrors’ faces have steeply curved surfaces. The mirror’s have to have exactly the same curvature in order to perform together, which requires leading-edge manufacturing. The mirrors’ paraboloidal shape has to be polished to an accuracy greater than 25 nanometers. That’s about 1/25th the wavelength of light itself!

In fact, if you took one of the GMT’s mirrors and spread it out from the east coast to the west coast of the USA, the height of the tallest mountain on the mirror would be only 1/2 of one inch.

The plan is for the Giant Magellan Telescope to begin operation with only four of its mirrors. The GMT will also have an extra mirror built, just for contingencies.

The construction of the GMT’s mirrors required entirely new testing methods and equipment to achieve these demanding accuracies. The entire task fell on the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab.

But GMT is more than just its primary mirror. It also has a secondary mirror, which is also segmented. Each one of the secondary mirror’s segments must work in concert with its matching segment on the primary mirror, and the distance from secondary mirror to primary mirror has to be measured within one part in 500 million. That requires exacting engineering for the steel structure of the body of the telescope.

The engineering behind the GMT is extremely demanding, but once it’s in operation, what will it help us learn about the Universe?

“I think the really exciting things will be things that we haven’t yet though of.” -Dr. Robert Kirshner

The GMT will help us tackle multiple mysteries in the Universe, as Dr. Robert Kirshner, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explains in this video.

The scientific aims of the GMT are well laid out, and there aren’t really any surprises. The goals of the GMT are to increase our understanding of some fundamental aspects of our Universe:

  • Star, planet, and disk formation
  • Extrasolar planetary systems
  • Stellar populations and chemical evolution
  • Galaxy assembly and evolution
  • Fundamental physics
  • First light and reionization

The GMT will collect more light than any other telescope we have, which is why its development is so keenly followed. It will be the first ‘scope to directly image extrasolar planets, which will be enormously exciting. With the GMT, we may be able to see the color of planets, and maybe even weather systems.

We’re accustomed to seeing images of Jupiter’s storm bands, and weather phenomena on other planets in our Solar System, but to be able to see something like that on extra-solar planets will be astounding. That’s something that even the casual space-interested person will immediately be fascinated by. It’s like science fiction come to life.

Of course, we’re still a ways away from any of that happening. With first light not anticipated until the early 2020’s, we’ll have to be very patient.