A New Giant Telescope Aims to Answer the Question: Is There Anyone Out There?

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Wednesday, November 20, 2019
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With seven curved mirrors giving it a record optical surface 80 feet in diameter, the GMT will have the sharpest images of any telescope ever built. Its resolution will be 10 times better than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. That will allow scientists to peer not just to the edge of the universe billions of light years away, but also effectively back in time.

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The New Astronomical Facility, Expected to Begin its Early Stargazing in 2021, will be Constructed On-Site at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's

Atacama Desert, Known for its Clear, Dark Skies and Outstanding

Astronomical Image Clarity

In particular, they hope to focus on the period between 50 billion and 100 billion years after the Big Bang. That's the period when most stars, galaxies and black holes began to form — and when the conditions for the start of life on many other planets were most optimal. But if that sounds challenging, then bear in mind that the telescope will be seeking out planets in the "habitable zone" similar to ours, with water, moderate temperature fluctuations and a stable atmosphere. In most cases, those planets are outshone billions of times by the neighboring stars around which they orbit. "Are we alone? That is a fundamental question that every human being is interested in answering," says Patrick McCarthy, GMT president and a Carnegie astronomer. "We are very lucky to be living at a time when we can begin attempting to answer it." "Even when I was a graduate student, in the '80s and '90s, there was a certain degree of pessimism. It was that we are either on our own in this universe, or else extremely rare. That has changed very quickly, with various breakthroughs in the science," he adds.

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The most Powerful Ground-Based Telescope in the World is Being Built in Chile, Enabling Astronomers to take Pictures of the Deep Space Ten Times Sharper than those Delivered by the Hubble Space Telescope

Even if just one star in a billion has a planet in the habitable zone, McCarthy says that still leads to significant odds of life developing elsewhere in the universe. There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, one of just 100 billion galaxies. He says there could be as many as "10 to the 15th" habitable planets out there. If the telescope is successful in picking up the first signs of extraterrestrial life — even if it's just a few microbes rather than "intelligent" beings — it would be one of the most sensational discoveries in the history of science. It would also silence the doubters, who still remain a significant minority of experts on the subject.

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The consortium behind the GMT is made up of a host of colleges and research centers from Australia, Brazil, Korea and the United States, including Harvard, Texas A&M, the Universities of Arizona, Chicago and Texas at Austin, as well as the Carnegie and Smithsonian Institutions. So far, they have already raised $500 million of the project's total $1 billion cost, enough for them to decide to move ahead with breaking ground in Chile in November, 2015. The site they have chosen in the Atacama desert is one of the driest areas on Earth. It's ideal not just because there are roughly 300 days a year without clouds, or because of the altitude. The area also lacks human settlements nearby that give off the kind of ambient light that makes it harder to view the stars, a problem that's lessened the effectiveness of some other large telescopes around the world. The Chilean site is so remote that the project's planners believe that even in 50 years, there will still be no people residing or emitting light from their homes and businesses anywhere near the GMT. That has also allowed them to invest in some truly astonishing technology.

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Giant Telescope Mirrors

The telescope's secondary mirrors will be made from honey-combed glass. That makes them unusually light, but also lets them flex and bend, to compensate for atmospheric turbulence distorting light from distant galaxies. It's that kind of turbulence that causes stars to twinkle, but which also presents a headache for astronomers. By flexing tiny portions of their reflecting surface up to 500 times a second, the GMT's mirrors will give scientists a clearer, stable image. "Glass has this wonderful property that when you bend it — so long as you don't break it — unlike metal it has no memory of being bent and returns to its original shape," McCarthy says. "Glass is pretty stiff. You don't have to bend it very much." But now, as the GMT team reaches for the skies, the first step toward putting the telescope in place is building its foundations by digging a huge hole on that Atacama hilltop.

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    Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is slated to be the first in a new class of extremely large telescopes, capable of producing images with 10 times the clarity of those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. The GMT aims to discover Earth-like planets around nearby stars and the tiny distortions that black holes cause in the light from distant stars and galaxies. It will reveal the faintest objects ever seen in space, including extremely distant and ancient galaxies, the light from which has been travelling to Earth since shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago. The telescope will be built at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Las Campanas Observatory in the dry, clear air of Chile's Atacama Desert, in a dome 22 stories high. GMT is expected to see first light in 2021 and be fully operational by 2024.

    This article first appeared on GlobalPost.   Images courtesy of GMTO Corporation.