Next Generation Telescopes Could Search for Intelligent Civilizations Directly

An artist's illustration of the LUVOIR-A telescope concept. Image Credit: NASA

We’re still in the early days of searching for life elsewhere. The Perseverance rover is on its way to a paleo-delta on Mars to look for fossilized signs of ancient bacterial life. SETI’s been watching the sky with radio dishes, listening for signals from distant worlds. Our telescopes are beginning to scan the atmospheres of distant exoplanets for biosignatures.

Soon we’ll take another step forward in the search when new, powerful telescopes begin to search not just for life but for other civilizations.

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Smaller, Ground-Based Telescopes can Study Exoplanet Atmospheres too

An artist's illustration of exoplanet Kelt-9b. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The next step to understanding exoplanets is to understand their atmospheres better. Astronomers can determine a planet’s mass, density, and other physical characteristics fairly routinely. But characterizing their atmospheres is more complicated.

Astronomers have had some success studying exoplanet atmospheres, and spacecraft like the James Webb Space Telescope and the ESA’s ARIEL mission will help a lot. But there are thousands of confirmed exoplanets with many more to come, and the Webb has many demands on its time.

Can smaller, ground-based telescopes play a role in understanding exoplanet atmospheres?

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A new Balloon-Based Observatory Could Produce Images as Fine as Hubble

Launching satellites is an expensive business – at least for now.  But satellites are necessary in astronomy for one major reason – it gets telescopes above the atmosphere.  The Earth’s atmosphere and its associated weather patterns are a massive hindrance to collecting good images.  If a stray cloud passes in front of the observational target once over the course of a few days, it could ruin the entire image.  Which is why some of the most striking astronomical pictures come from space-based observatories like Hubble. But now, a team of researchers from Durham, Toronto, and Princeton Universities has come up with a new way to get above that atmosphere that doesn’t involve a launch into orbit. They want to use a balloon.

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The Roman Space Telescope’s Version of the Hubble Deep Field Will Cover a 100x Larger Area of the Sky

This composite image illustrates the possibility of a Roman Space Telescope “ultra deep field” observation. In a deep field, astronomers collect light from a patch of sky for an extended period of time to reveal the faintest and most distant objects. This view centers on the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (outlined in blue), which represents the deepest portrait of the universe ever achieved by humankind, at visible, ultraviolet and near-infrared wavelengths. Two insets reveal stunning details of the galaxies within the field. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Koekemoer (STScI) Acknowledgement: Digitized Sky Survey

Remember the Hubble Deep Field? And its successor the Hubble Ultra Deep Field? We sure do here at Universe Today. How could we forget them?

Well, just as the Hubble Space Telescope has successors, so do two of its most famous images. And those successors will come from one of Hubble’s successors, NASA’s Roman Space Telescope.

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The Kilonova-Chasing Gravitational-Wave Optical Transient Observer is About to be Watching the Whole Sky

Lately there has been a flood of interest in gravitational waves.  After the first official detection at LIGO / Virgo in 2015, data has been coming in showing how common these once theoretical phenomena actually are.  Usually they are caused by unimaginably violent events, such as a merging pair of black holes.  Such events also have a tendency to emit another type of phenomena – light.  So far it has been difficult to observe any optical associated with these gravitational-wave emitting events.  But a team of researchers hope to change that with the full implementation of the Gravitation-wave Optical Transient Observer (GOTO) telescope.

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A New Artist’s Illustration of the Extremely Large Telescope. So Many Lasers

The Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be the biggest ‘eye on the sky’ when it achieves first light later this decade. The telescope uses lasers as ‘guide stars’ to measure how much the light is distorted by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere. The deformable M4 mirror adjusts its shape in real time to compensate for these changes in the atmosphere, helping the ELT produce images 16 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. Image Credit: ESO

Everyone loves lasers. And the only thing better than a bunch of lasers is a bunch of lasers on one of the world’s (soon to be) largest telescopes, the E-ELT. Well, maybe a bunch of lasers on a time-travelling T. Rex that appears in your observatory and demands to know the locations and trajectories of incoming asteroids. That might be better. For the dinosaurs; not for us.

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The Carina Nebula. Seen With and Without Adaptive Optics

This image shows a comparison of the new image (top) of the western wall of the Carina Nebula taken by the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF’s NOIRLab, and an image of the same region without Adaptive Optics (bottom). The top image was taken with the Gemini South telescope with the GSAOI instrument using the GeMS adaptive optics system, and the bottom image was taken at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory with the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope using the NEWFIRM instrument. Image Credit: International Gemini Observatory/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

Ever wonder how modern astronomical observatories take such clear images of distant objects? Advances in mirror design have allowed for larger and larger primary mirrors. But adaptive optics play a huge role, too.

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Antarctica Is the Best Place On Earth for a Telescope, Is Also the Hardest Place to Put a Telescope

Image of a telescope at Dome Argus, one of the coldest places on Earth. Credit: Zhaohui Shang

Twinkling stars might make for spectacular viewing on a hot summer’s night, but they are an absolute nightmare to astronomers. That twinkling is caused by disturbances in the Earth’s atmosphere, and can wreak havoc on brightness readings, a key tool for astronomers everywhere.  Those readings are used for everything from understanding galaxy formation to the detection of exoplanets.

Astronomers now have a new potential location to try to avoid the twinkling.  Only one problem though: it’s really cold, especially this time of year.  A team of astronomers from Canada, China, and Australia have identified a part of Antarctica as the ideal place to put observational telescopes.  Now the challenge becomes how to actually build one there.

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What Telescope Will Be Needed to See the First Stars in the Universe? The Ultimately Large Telescope

New results from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope suggest the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the early Universe took place sooner than previously thought. A European team of astronomers have found no evidence of the first generation of stars, known as Population III stars, when the Universe was less than one billion years old. This artist’s impression presents the early Universe. Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser.

The oldest stars in the Universe are cloaked in darkness. Their redshift is so high, we can only wonder about them. The James Webb Space Telescope will be our most effective telescope for observing the very early Universe, and should observe out to z = 15. But even it has limitations.

To observe the Universe’s very first stars, we need a bigger telescope. The Ultimately Large Telescope.

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Japan Suspends its Funding for the 30-Meter Telescope

An artist's illustration of the Thirty Meter Telescope at its preferred location at Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Image Courtesy TMT International Observatory

Japan has suspended its funding contribution to the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii. An international consortium is behind the TMT, which was proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is one of the most desirable observing locations on Earth. It’s already host to several observatories, including the Subaru Telescope and the Keck Observatory. The $1.4 billion TMT would be the most powerful telescope there.

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