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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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 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6880933

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.

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: tmt.org