Giant telescope to turn eye to the skies

November 21, 2005 | Canadian University Press

Canadian scientists are behind a plan to build the world’s largest telescope.

With a diameter of 30 metres, the Thirty-Metre Telescope (TMT) would be nine times bigger than the current largest telescope, which is 10 metres in diameter. It is estimated that the project will take $750 million and 10 years to build.

While the telescope won’t allow astronomers to see anything new—they can already see to the end of the universe—it will make things much clearer.

“The telescope will bring greater clarity and help satisfy our curiosity about what’s out there,” said David Halliday, Vice President and Director of Special Projects at AMEC, the international project management and engineering services company behind the project.

Among the things scientists are hoping to see are planets, life and dark matter. TMT will allow for the study of black holes and how they affect galaxies, including the one in the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

“This instrument can literally look back to the beginning of time. It can look at galaxies, planetary systems. It can look essentially for life,” said Halliday.

AMEC engineers are currently working on the telescope itself, which will be made up of 780 hexagonal mirror segments, and the enclosure around the telescope. If all goes well, the project will start construction in 2008, and will be completed by 2015. Possible sites for the telescope, which will be the size of a football field, are in Hawaii, Mexico and Chile. The entire structure is expected to weigh close to 4,000 tonnes.

The large size of the project will present a number of challenges for the team. “The problems get very much larger as you scale up,” said Halliday. Specifically, getting 780 mirrors to move together will be an “incredible challenge.” Despite the difficulties, Halliday said he doesn’t “see any showstoppers yet.”

TMT will be “state of the art,” said Halliday, noting that many of the instruments required haven’t even been designed yet.

The company started work on the TMT four years ago and was joined by the National Research Council of Canada to draft concept designs.

According to Halliday, a presentation at a symposium generated international interest in their design solution for the telescope. “We gained a lot of credibility,” he said, “which provided a vehicle for us to join forces with other groups,” such as the U.S. Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

The project also has the support of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), an organization of Canadian universities dedicated to the advancement of research and teaching in astronomy and astrophysics in Canada. Fifteen Canadian universities are involved with the project.

“The TMT is one of the most exciting international science projects and universities are pleased to collaborate with AMEC,” said Pekka Sinervo, Chair of the Institutional Council of ACURA. “This will be the research instrument for the next generation of astronomers.”

The need for a telescope with the power of TMT has been identified in the Canadian Long Range Plan for Astronomy as well as in the US National Academy of Sciences report “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium” as the highest-priority new ground-based facility for the first decade of the 21st century.