World's Biggest Telescope Will Provide "Baby Pictures" of the Universe

By Eliza Strickland | July 22, 2009 11:07 am

30 meter telescopeThe dormant Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea has been selected as the site of the world’s largest telescope, the much-anticipated Thirty Meter Telescope. Its enormous mirror will have nine times the light-gathering capacity as the biggest telescopes operating today, and will be able to look back to the beginnings of the universe. “It will really provide the baby pictures of the universe” [Honolulu Advertiser], says Charles Blue, a spokesman for the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corporation.

The telescope’s mirror, stretching 30 meters (almost 100 feet) in diameter, will be so large that it should be able to gather light that will have spent 13 billion years traveling to earth. This means astronomers looking into the telescope will be able to see images of the first stars and galaxies forming — some 400 million years after the Big Bang [AP]. The telescope is expected to be completed by 2018, but it may not be the world’s largest for long–the European Extremely Large Telescope is scheduled for completion around the same time, and will boast a 138-foot mirror.

The volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island was chosen over the other finalist candidate, a mountaintop in Chile, because “the atmospheric conditions, low average temperatures and very low humidity will open an exciting new discovery space” [Honolulu Star-Bulletin], says Edward Stone, vice chairman of the TMT board. The telescope’s directors said in a press release that it will also be the first telescope ever with “adaptive optics” built in from the beginning, a technique that senses corrects for atmospheric turbulence, giving the telescope “spatial resolution more than 12 times sharper than what is achieved by the Hubble Space Telescope” [Nature blog].

The Thirty Meter Telescope will be the 14th observatory on Mauna Kea. The 13,800-foot-high peak is a marvelous site for astronomy, as it’s above the clouds and fairly isolated from air and light pollution, but it also brings some complications. Mauna Kea is considered sacred to Native Hawaiians, while environmentalists have raised concerns about how the project will affect rare native plant and insect species atop the volcano. That opposition could affect work on the new telescope, especially if those against the project decide to head to court [Honolulu Advertiser].

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Image: Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp.

  • Dennis

    Sacred work should be carried out at a sacred spot.

  • bigjohn756

    I remember when the 200 INCH telescope was being built a few(OK, 60, but, it doesn’t seem like that long ago) years back, and, the many articles about how difficult is was to build. Now we’re building these huge instruments–just amazing!

  • Albert Bakker

    How are the crazy environmentalists going to sell the threat of instant annihilation to that admittedly scarce vegetation or those insects by adding a fourteenth site to the thirteen already existing observatories? Oh yeah, courts.

    There is much more merit though to the local Hawaiian opposition and the story is very old and the friction as always easily avoidable in hindsight and very hard to repair. Colonial arrogance and cultural insensitivity. Those lessons prove so much harder to learn than any mystery the Universe can throw at us.

  • robot makes music

    It would be nice if the scientists could find a way to accommodate both the scopes and the plants and insects… what good is science for if it has to destroy the land to make way for observing the heavens?

  • fco

    boo… for not choosing Chile.

  • ed

    They should have called it the ‘Almost 100 Feet Telescope’

    Seriously now let’s hope they dont mix metric and imperial units like NASA does.

  • Bill Plummer

    What size discs and how many will make up the effective 30 meters? Will any be larger than 8 meters?

  • Brian

    This has got to be a new golden age for telescopes and astronomers. Look at all these proposals for new, huge, expensive instruments. And most people believe they’ll work too! The baseline of successful projects is significant.

    Remember when Keck and Gemini were the big new things? Radical designs and considered innovative if not downright risky. Now they just work and people take them for granted.

    The success of the giant ground based telescopes also seems to me to be important. I suspect that a lot of the steam has been taken out of the radical plans for giant space-based telescopes. While they may get built someday, the expense of building them and the difficulty in maintaining them has got to be a barrier.

    As bigjohn756 hints at, after Hale, the big telescope field ground to a halt for 50-60 years. Well, there was that big Soviet instrument, but apparently that never worked right. I suppose you could say that radio astronomy developed in that timeframe too, but it’s not the same. You can’t look through a viewfinder on a radio telescope, not even in theory.


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