A Telescope of Astronomic Proportions

There seem to be as many inconceivable statistics attempting to depict the universe’s enormity on an understandable scale as there are stars in the sky. An example of these well-intentioned but ultimately meaningless statistics would be the rough estimate of the number of galaxies in the observable universe: one hundred billion. Another piece of information that might be a little bit too mind-blowing would be something like the fact that astronomers believe that each one of these galaxies, alone, has somewhere in the ballpark of another hundred billion stars. The fact of the matter is that no matter how one tries to rationalize it, the universe is simply immense, vast, and titanic.

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Figure of the observable universe with the local supercluster (containing the milky way) pointed out

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Figure of the both “universes”

Even with all these figures (and synonyms for enormous) floating around the expanse of the Internet, it is truly impossible for the human brain to comprehend to hugeness of space. Realistically, it would naïve to state that a true understanding of the universe’s size will ever be achieved in this lifetime; however, technological advances stemming from the humble planet Earth have been slowly bridging the gap.

Space observatory missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Telescope have begun to circulate the solar system in order to capture the universe in a revolutionary light. Although these telescopes illuminate the universe’s structure, contents, and, of course, size in radical ways, much of the scientific advances that are changing the astrophysics community’s notion of space are occurring here on Earth.

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Computer rendering of the E-ELT 

On December 4th of this year, the green light was given to the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will likely become the world’s largest telescope. This project has been in talks since it was first proposed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 2005. Since its initial announcement, the ESO has been working tirelessly with a confederation of European astronomers to make this once-unfeasible dream a reality. Every aspect of this potential scientific marvel has been meticulously scrutinized due to its size and astronomical cost (≈1.34 billion dollars).

This may seem like an excessive amount of money to spend on what appears to be an unreasonably large telescope, however, in this case, bigger is better. The telescopes, set to be mounted atop Chile’s Cerro Armazones, will collect images 15 times clearer than the Hubble Telescope, which had to be physically sent into space to accumulate its images. The increase in image quality is all due to the sheer size of the telescope’s aperture: 39.2 meters. The 39.2 meter mirror used as the primary mirror for the device’s aperture will be composed of 798 hexagons and the overall telescope will way around 2,800 tons.

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Cardboard model of the E-ELT’s mirrors 

A new class of 30-meter telescopes like the E-ELT is emerging with two similar members, the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope, currently being constructed. Each one of these apparatuses will have a dramatic effect on the community of astronomers. They will greatly facilitate learning and the communication of information, making every object in the night sky more easily available for study. Additionally, these telescopes’ sizable diameters and refined resolutions will cancel out an issue that has plagued astronomers for centuries: the distracting light produced by our atmosphere. Without these hindrances, astronomers will be better able to concentrate on specific deep space objects.

Moreover, astronomers will be able to use the E-ELT to document primordial planet formations due to the finite speed of light which hits the earth at rates proportional to the object’s distance from earth. For example, the Proxima Centauri, the closest star to earth, is four light years away. This means that when one views the Proxima Centauri from other they are actually viewing the star four years ago. The E-ELT, however, will be able to capture an increased amount of distant light allowing astronomers to travel back in time further than ever before. In this process, the E-ELT  will also target the earliest planets, stars, and black holes increasing humanity’s understanding of the universe’s evolution.

These particular development will allow humanity to truly understand our past and future, because the E-ELT does not only illuminate the universe’s past, but also humanities possible future. The images amassed by the E-ELT will distinguish water and other organic molecules in nearby exoplanets that could possibly be earth’s replacement one day.

Forget flying cars and artificial intelligence; it is the E-ELT and other telescopes of its class that are going to change the course of mankind. With the images collected by these apparatuses, space will not seem so far away anymore; every aspect of man’s curiosity about the beyond will be able to be indulged. Thanks to these advances and more, maybe one day humanity will finally understand the size of the universe around us.

Colette Juran, Staff Writer

Posted by on December 10, 2014. Filed under World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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