Friday, October 5, 2012

Giant Telescopes of the Future


Astronomy is big science. It's a vast Universe out there, and the exploration of the cosmos requires huge instruments.

This is the 5-meter Hale reflector on Palomar Mountain. When the European Southern Observatory came into being, fifty years ago, it was the largest telescope in the world.

ESO's Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal is the state of the art now. As the most powerful observatory in history, it has revealed the full splendor of the Universe in which we live.

But astronomers have set their sights on even bigger instruments.

And ESO is realizing their dreams.

San Pedro de Atacama. Tucked amidst breathtaking scenery and natural wonders, this picturesque town is home to indigenous AtacameƱos and adventurous backpackers alike. Not far from San Pedro, ESO's first dream machine is taking shape.

It's called ALMA -- the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.

Close together, the 66 antennas provide a wide-angle view. But spread apart, they reveal much finer detail over a smaller area of sky.

At submillimeter wavelengths, ALMA sees the Universe in a different light. 
But what will it reveal?

The birth of the very first galaxies in the Universe, in the wake of the Big Bang.

Cold and dusty clouds of molecular gas — the stellar nurseries where new suns and planets are born.

And: the chemistry of the cosmos. ALMA will track down organic molecules — the building blocks of life.

At 5000 meters above sea level, the array provides an unprecedented view of the microwave Universe.

While ALMA is nearly completed, ESO's next dream machine is still a few years away. See that mountain over there? That's Cerro Armazones.

Not far from Paranal, it will be home to the largest telescope in the history of mankind. Meet the European Extremely Large Telescope. The world's biggest eye on the sky.

Sporting a mirror almost forty meters across, the E- ELT simply dwarfs every telescope that preceded it. Almost eight hundred computer-controlled mirror segments. Complex optics to provide the sharpest possible images. A dome as tall as a church steeple.

The E-ELT is an exercise in superlatives. But the real wonder, or course, is in the Universe out there. The E-ELT will reveal planets orbiting other stars. Its spectrographs will sniff the atmospheres of these alien worlds, looking for bio-signatures.

Further away, the E-ELT will study individual stars in other galaxies.
It's like meeting the inhabitants of neighboring cities for the first time.

Working as a cosmic time machine, the giant telescope lets us look back billions of years, to learn how everything began. And it may solve the riddle of the accelerating Universe — the mysterious fact that galaxies are pushed away from each other faster and faster.

0 comments: