Cosmic Void Contains Fewer Galaxies than Expected, which, Ironically, Makes it Harder for Light to get Through

According to the Big Bang Theory of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago as all matter in the Universe began to expand from a single point of infinite density. Over the next few billion years, the fundamental forces of the Universe began to separate from each other and subatomic particles and atoms formed. In time, this first stars and galaxies formed, giving rise to the large-scale structure of the Universe.

However, it was only by roughly 1 billion years after the Big Bang that the Universe began to become transparent. By about 12 billion years ago, intergalactic space was filled with gas that was much less transparent than it is now, with variations from place to place. To address why this was, a team of astronomers recently used the world’s largest telescope to search for galaxies of young stars in a huge volume of space.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “Evidence for Large-scale Fluctuations in the Metagalactic Ionizing Background Near Redshift Six“. The study was led by George D. Becker, a professor of astrophysics at the University of California Riverside, and included members from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Credit: NASA

For the sake of their study, the team used the Subaru Telescope – the world’s largest telescope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii – to examine a 500 million light-year volume of space as it existed roughly 12 billion years ago. Using this data, the team considered two possible models that could account for the variations in transparency that astronomers have been seeing during this cosmic epoch.

On the one hand, if the region contained a small number of galaxies, the team would conclude that startlight could not penetrate very far through the intergalactic gas. On the other hand, if it contained an unusually large number of galaxies, this would indicate that the region had cooled significantly over the previous several hundred million years. Prior to their observations, Beck and his team were expecting to find that it was the latter.

However, what they found was that the region contained far fewer galaxies than expected – which indicated that the opaqueness of the region was due to a lack of starlight. As Steven Furlanetto, a UCLA professor of astronomy and a co-author of the research, explained in a recent UCLA press release:

“It was a rare case in astronomy where two competing models, both of which were compelling in their own way, offered precisely opposite predictions, and we were lucky that those predictions were testable… It is not that the opacity is a cause of the lack of galaxies. Instead, it’s the other way around.”

In addition to addressing an enduring mystery in astronomy, this study also has implications for our understanding of how the Universe evolved over time. According to our current cosmological models, the period that took place roughly 380,000 t0 150 million years after the Big Bang is known as the “Dark Ages”. Most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons at this time, which means radiation from this period is undetectable by our current instruments.

However, by about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the first stars and galaxies had formed. It is further believed that ultraviolet light from these first galaxies filled the Universe and is what allowed for the gas in deep space to become transparent. This would have occurred earlier in regions with more galaxies, the astronomers concluded, hence why there are variations in transparency.

In short, if more ultraviolet radiation from galaxies would lead to greater transparency in the early Universe, then the existence of fewer nearby galaxies would cause certain regions to be murkier. In the future, Becker and his team hope to further study this region of space and others like it in the hope that it will reveal clues about how the first galaxies illuminated the Universe during that early period, which remains a subject of inquiry at this point.

This research is also expected to shed more light on how the early Universe evolved, gradually giving rise to the one that are familiar with today. And as next-generation instruments are able to probe deeper into space (and hence, further back in time), we just may come to understand how existence as we know it all unfolded.

Further Reading: UCLA, The Astrophysical Journal

Rise of the Super Telescopes: The Thirty Meter Telescope

As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But in order 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 six Super Telescopes being built:

The Thirty Meter Telescope

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is being built by an international group of countries and institutions, like a lot of Super Telescopes are. In fact, they’re proud of pointing out that the international consortium behind the TMT represents almost half of the world’s population; China, India, the USA, Japan, and Canada. The project needs that many partners to absorb the cost; an estimated $1.5 billion.

The heart of any of the world’s Super Telescopes is the primary mirror, and the TMT is no different. The primary mirror for the TMT is, obviously, 30 meters in diameter. It’s a segmented design consisting of 492 smaller mirrors, each one a 1.4 meter hexagon.

The light collecting capability of the TMT will be 10 times that of the Keck Telescope, and more than 144 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

But the TMT is more than just an enormous ‘light bucket.’ It also excels with other capabilities that define a super telescope’s effectiveness. One of those is what’s called diffraction-limited spatial resolution (DLSR).

An illustration of the segmented primary mirror of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Image Courtesy TMT International Observatory

When a telescope is pointed at distant objects that appear close together, the light from both can scatter enough to make the two objects appear as one. Diffraction-limited spatial resolution means that when a ‘scope is observing a star or other object, none of the light from that object is scattered by defects in the telescope. The TMT will more easily distinguish objects that are close to each other. When it comes to DLSR, the TMT will exceed the Keck by a factor of 3, and will exceed the Hubble by a factor of 10 at some wavelengths.

Crucial to the function of large, segmented mirrors like the TMT is active optics. By controlling the shape and position of each segment, active optics allows the primary mirror to compensate for changes in wind, temperature, or mechanical stress on the telescope. Without active optics, and its sister technology adaptive optics, which compensates for atmospheric disturbance, any telescope larger than about 8 meters would not function properly.

The TMT will operate in the near-ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths. It will be smaller than the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will have a 39 meter primary mirror. The E-ELT will operate in the optical and infrared wavelengths.

The world’s Super Telescopes are behemoths. Not just in the size of their mirrors, but in their mass. The TMT’s moving mass will be about 1,420 tonnes. Moving the TMT quickly is part of the design of the TMT, because it must respond quickly when something like a supernova is spotted. The detailed science case calls for the TMT to acquire a new target within 5 to 10 minutes.

This requires a complex computer system to coordinate the science instruments, the mirrors, the active optics, and the adaptive optics. This was one of the initial challenges of the TMT project. It will allow the TMT to respond to transient phenomena like supernovae when spotted by other telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

The Science

The TMT will investigate most of the important questions in astronomy and cosmology today. Here’s an overview of major topics that the TMT will address:

  • The Nature of Dark Matter
  • The Physics of Extreme Objects like Neutron Stars
  • Early galaxies and Cosmic Reionization
  • Galaxy Formation
  • Super-Massive Black Holes
  • Exploration of the Milky Way and Nearby Galaxies
  • The Birth and Early Lives of Stars and Planets
  • Time Domain Science: Supernovae and Gamma Ray Bursts
  • Exo-planets
  • Our Solar System

This is a comprehensive list of topics, to be sure. It leaves very little out, and is a testament to the power and effectiveness of the TMT.

The raw power of the TMT is not in question. Once in operation it will advance our understanding of the Universe on multiple fronts. But the actual location of the TMT could still be in question.

Where Will the TMT Be Built?

The original location for the TMT was Mauna Kea, the 4,200 meter summit in Hawaii. Mauna Kea is an excellent location, and is the home of several telescopes, most notably the Keck Observatory, the Gemini Telescope, the Subaru Telescope, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. Mauna Kea is also the site of the westernmost antenna of the Very Long Baseline Array.

The top of Mauna Kea is a prime site for telescopes, as shown in this image. Image Courtesy Mauna Kea Observatories

The dispute between some of the Hawaiian people and the TMT has been well-documented elsewhere, but the basic complaint about the TMT is that the top of Mauna Kea is sacred land, and they would like the TMT to be built elsewhere.

The organizations behind the TMT would still like it to be built at Mauna Kea, and a legal process is unfolding around the dispute. During that process, they identified several possible alternate sites for the telescope, including La Palma in the Canary Islands. Universe Today contacted TMT Observatory Scientist Christophe Dumas, PhD., about the possible relocation of the TMT to another site.

Dr. Dumas told us that “Mauna Kea remains the preferred location for the TMT because of its superb observing conditions, and because of the synergy with other TMT partner facilities already present on the mountain. Its very high elevation of almost 14,000 feet makes it the premier astronomical site in the northern hemisphere. The sky above Mauna Kea is very stable, which allows very sharp images to be obtained. It has also excellent transparency, low light pollution and stable cold temperatures that improves sensitivity for observations in the infrared.”

The preferred secondary site at La Palma is home to over 10 other telescopes, but would relocation to the Canary Islands affect the science done by the TMT? Dr. Dumas says that the Canary Islands site is excellent as well, with similar atmospheric characteristics to Mauna Kea, including stability, transparency, darkness, and fraction of clear-nights.

The Gran Telescopio Canarias (Great Canary Telescope) is the largest ‘scope currently at La Palma. At 10m diameter, it would be dwarfed by the TMT. Image: By Pachango – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As Dr. Dumas explains, “La Palma is at a lower elevation site and on average warmer than Mauna Kea. These two factors will reduce TMT sensitivity at some wavelengths in the infrared region of the spectrum.”

Dr. Dumas told Universe Today that this reduced sensitivity in the infrared can be overcome somewhat by scheduling different observing tasks. “This specific issue can be partly mitigated by implementing an adaptive scheduling of TMT observations, to match the execution of the most demanding infrared programs with the best atmospheric conditions above La Palma.”

Court Proceedings End

On March 3rd, 44 days of court hearings into the TMT wrapped up. In that time, 71 people testified for and against the TMT being constructed on Mauna Kea. Those against the telescope say that the site is sacred land and shouldn’t have any more telescope construction on it. Those for the TMT spoke in favor of the science that the TMT will deliver to everyone, and the education opportunities it will provide to Hawaiians.

Though construction has been delayed, and people have gone to court to have the project stopped, it seems like the TMT will definitely be built—somewhere. The funding is in place, the design is finalized, and manufacturing of the components is underway. The delays mean that the TMT’s first light is still uncertain, but once we get there, the TMT will be another game-changer, just like the world’s other Super Telescopes.

The Race To Image Exoplanets Heats Up!

Thanks to the deployment of the Kepler mission, thousands of extrasolar planet candidates have been discovered. Using a variety of indirect detection methods, astronomers have detected countless gas giants, super Earths, and other assorted bodies orbiting distant stars. And one terrestrial planet (Proxima b) has even been found lurking in the closest star system to Earth – Proxima Centauri.

The next step, quite logically, is to observe these planets directly. Hence why the Subaru Coronagraphic Extreme Adaptive Optics (SCExAO) instrument was commissioned at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) in  Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Designed to allow for the direct detection of planets around other stars, this instrument will help ensure that the Subaru Telescope remains on the cutting-edge of exoplanet hunting.

As of January 22nd, 2017, some 3,565 exoplanet candidates have been detected in 2,675 planetary systems, and over 2000 of these have been confirmed. However, as already noted, the vast majority of these have been detected by  indirect means – generally through the measurement of a star’s radial velocity, or by measuring dips in a star’s luminosity as an exoplanet passes in front of it (i.e. the transit method).

The Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea. CHARIS works in conjunction with Subaru. Image: Dr. Hideaki Fujiwara - Subaru Telescope, NAOJ.
The Subaru Telescope atop Mauna Kea. CHARIS works in conjunction with Subaru. Credit: Dr. Hideaki Fujiwara/NAOJ

Adaptive Optics, meanwhile, have allowed for the detection of exoplanets directly. When used in astronomy, this technology removes the the effects of atmospheric interference so that light from distant stars or planets can be seen clearly. Relying on experimental technology, the SCExAO was specifically designed and optimized for imaging planets, and is one of several newly-commissioned extreme AO instruments.

However, as Dr. Thayne Currie – a research associate at the NOAJ – indicated, the Observatories on Mauna Kea are particularly well suited to the technology. “Mauna Kea is the best place on this planet to see planets in other stellar systems,” he said. “Now, we finally have an instrument designed to utilize this mountain’s special gifts and the results are breathtaking.”

What makes the SCExAO special is that it allows astronomers the ability to image planets with masses and orbital separations that are similar to those in our own Solar System. So far, about a dozen planets have been detected directly using AO instruments, but these planets have all been gas giants with 4 to 13 times the mass of Jupiter, and which orbit their stars at distances beyond that of Neptune from our Sun.

This improved imaging capacity is made possible by the SCExAO’s ability to compensate for atmospheric interference at a faster rate. This will enable the Subaru Telescope to be able to capture far images of distant stars that are sharper and subject to less glare. And astronomers will be able to discern the presence of fainter objects that are circling these stars – i.e. exoplanets – with greater ease.

The debris disk detected around a young star HD 36546 using SCExAO/HiCIAO (left, seen nearly edge-on) and its model (right, viewed face-on). Credit: NAOJ

The first discovery made with the SCExAO, took place back in October of 2016. At the time, the Subaru telescope had detected a debris disk around HD 36546 – a 2 solar-mass star in the direction of the Taurus constellation – which appeared almost edge on. Located about twice as far from HD 36546 as the Kuiper Belt is from our Sun, this disk is believed to be the youngest debris disk ever observed (3 to 10 million years old).

This test of the SCExAO not only revealed a disk that could be critical to studying the earliest stages of icy planet formation, but demonstrated the extreme sensitivity of the technology. Basically, it allowed the astronomers conducting the study to rule out the existence of any planets in the system, thus concluding that planetary dynamics played no role in sculpting the disk.

More recently, the SCExAO instrument managed to directly detect multiple planets in the system known as HR 8799, which it observed in July of 2016. Prior to this, some of the systems four planets were spotted by surveys conducted using the Keck and the Subaru telescope (before the SCExAO was incorporated). However, these surveys could not correct for all the glare coming from HR 8799, and could only image two of three of the planets as a result.

A follow-up was conducted in the Fall of 2016, combining data from the SCExAO with that obtained by the Coronagraphic High Angular Resolution Imaging Spectrograph (CHARIS). This resulted in even clearer detection of the system’s inner three planets, not to mention high-quality spectrographic data that could allow researchers to determine the chemical compositions of their atmospheres.

The star and multiple planet system HR 8799 imaged using the SCEAO and the HiCIAO camera (left) and the Keck facility AO system coupled with the NIRC2 camera (right). Credit: NAOJ

As Dr. Olivier Guyon, the head of the SCExAO project, explained, this is a major improvement over other AO surveys. It also presents some major advantages when it comes to exoplanet hunting. “With SCExAO, we know not only the presence of a planet but also its character such as whether it is cloudy and what molecules it has, even if that planet is tens of trillions of miles away.”

Looking at the year ahead, the SCExAO is scheduled to undergo improvements that will allow it to detect planets that are 10 to 10o times fainter than what it can right now. The CHARIS instrument is also scheduled for additional engineering tests to improve its capabilities. These improvements are also expected to be incorporated into next-generation telescopes like the Thirty Meter Telescope – which is currently under construction at Mauna Kea.

Other recently-commissioned extreme AO instruments include the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) at Gemini Observatory on its telescope in Chile, the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) on Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, and the AO system on the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona. And these are only some of the current attempts to reduce interference and make exoplanets easier to detect.

For instance, coronagraph are another way astronomers are attempting to refine their search efforts. Consisting of tiny instruments that are fitted inside telescopes, coronagraphs block the incoming light of a star, thus enabling telescopes to spot the faint light being reflected from orbiting planets. When paired with spectrometers, scientists are able to conduct studies of these planet’s atmospheres.

An artist's illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion telescope. Image: NASA
An artist’s illustration of the Starshade deployed near its companion space telescope. Credit: NASA

And then you have more ambitious projects like Starshade, a concept currently being developed by Northrop Grumman with the support of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This concept calls for a giant, flower-shaped screen that would be launched with one of NASA’s next-generation space telescopes. Once deployed, it would fly around in front of the telescope in order to obscure the light coming from distant stars.

The era of exoplanet discovery loometh! In the coming decades, we are likely to see an explosion in the number of planets were are able to observe directly. And in so doing, we can expect the number of potentially habitable exoplanets to grow accordingly.

Further Reading: NAOJ/Subaru Telescope

New Poll Shows 2-1 Margin Of Support From Hawaiians For Thirty Meter Telescope

Ever since it was approved for construction, the Thirty Meter Telescope has been the subject of controversy. A proposed astronomical observatory that is planned to be built on Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s famous dormant volcano and the home of the Mauna Kea Observatories – the construction of this facility has been delayed multiple times due to resistance from the local community.

Stressing the impact the facility will have on local wild life, the associated noise and traffic, and the fact that the proposed site is on land sacred to Hawaii’s indigenous people, there are many locals who have protested the facility’s construction. But after multiple delays, and the cancellation of the facility’s building permits, it appears that public support may be firmly behind the creation of the TMT.

Planning for the Thirty Meter Telescope began in 2000, when astronomers began considering the construction of telescopes that measured more than 20 meters in diameter. In time, the University of California and Caltech began conducting a series of studies, which would eventually culminate in the plans for the TMT. Site proposals also began to be considered by the TMT board, which led to the selection of Mauna Kea in 2009.

Mauna Kea summit as seen from the northeast. Credit: University of Hawaii.
Mauna Kea summit as seen from the northeast. Credit: University of Hawaii.

However, after opposition and protests halted construction on three occasions – on Oct. 14th, 2014, then again on April 2th and June 24th of 2015 – the State Supreme Court of Hawaii invalidated the TMT’s building permits. Since that time, multiple polls have been conducted to gauge public support for the project. Whereas a previous one, which was conducting in Oct. 2015, indicated that 59% of Big Island residents supported it (and 39% opposed it) the most recent poll yielded different results.

This poll, which was conducted in July of 2016 by Honolulu-based Ward Research, Inc. shows that 60% of Big Island residents now support moving ahead with construction, while 31% remain opposed. While not a huge change, it does indicate that support for the project now outweighs opposition by a 2 to 1 margin since the last time residents were asked, roughly nine months ago.

The first poll surveyed 613 Hawaii Big Island residents, aged 18 years and older and from a variety of backgrounds. The most recent poll surveyed 404 Hawaii residents at least 18 years old via both cellphone and landline (with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent).

The recent poll also indicated that the majority of respondents, ranging from 66% to 76%, believe that TMT will provide economic and educational opportunities, and that not moving forward would be bad for the island and its residents. Also of interest was the fact that support for TMT’s construction was split among Indigenous Hawaiians, with 46 percent of those polled in support and 45 percent opposed.

Artists concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory. Credit: TMT
Artists concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory. Credit: TMT

As Ed Stone, the TMT Executive Director, said of the results in a recent press release:

“It was important for us to understand how Hawaii Island residents feel about the project, and the latest poll results demonstrate that opposition to TMT on Hawaii Island is decreasing. That’s significant and we are most grateful that the community’s support of the project remains high. The findings also show that the general public on Hawaii Island understands the benefits TMT will bring in terms of Hawaii’s economy and education, both of which are very important to TMT.”

What is perhaps most relevant is the fact that while this most-recent poll shows virtually no change in the amount of support, it does show that opposition has decreased. The reason for this is not clear, but according to Kealoha Pisciotta of the Mauna Kea Hui – which is litigating against TMT’s construction – the change is attributable to the PR efforts of TMT, which hired Honolulu-based PR firm to promote their agenda.

Pisciotta also stressed that the state Constitution of Hawaii protects the cultural and traditional practices that will be affected by this massive project, which is something residents don’t appear to understand. Faced with the promise of benefits – which includes TMT’s annual $1 million contribution to The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund, which provides for STEM education.

Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea observed from space. Credit: NASA/EO

This is not to say that those polled rejected the concerns of those advocating for protection of Hawaiian heritage and culture. In fact, 89% of respondents – the largest return in the poll – indicated that “there should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture to co-exist”. While this is easier said than done, it does show that compromise is the most popular option, and could present a mutually-satisfactory way of moving forward.

What’s more, this is hardly the first time that Mauna Kea has been at the center of controversy. Ever since construction began on the Astronomy Precinct in 1967, there has been opposition from environmentalists and the Indigenous community. Not only is the Precinct located on land protected by the Historical Preservation Act of 1966 due to its significance to Hawaiian culture, it is also the habitat of an endangered species of bird (the Palila).

Nevertheless, Mauna Kea remains the preferred choice for the location of the TMT, though the board is evaluating alternative sites in case the project cannot move forward. Stone and his colleagues hope to resume construction of the TMT facility by April of 2018, and begin gathering images of the cosmos in the near-ultraviolet to mid-infrared by the 2020s.

Further Reading: