Wired article on the upcoming Thirty Meter Telescope (2018) and a movie called Avatar

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Watching the development of telescopes is a bit akin to watching computer processing power develop, as while there is always a new biggest and most impressive item on the market, at the same time there is always something else under construction that is going to make the current most impressive one look like yesterday's technology when it comes out. In comparison to the Large Binocular Telescope with its dual 8.4-metre mirrors, the Thirty Meter Telescope is going to be, well, thirty metres. Wikipedia has an article on the upcoming telescope and Wired has an article of its own from today. According to that, the TMT will have a collecting power twelve times that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Total cost: $970 million.

Thus far telescopes have been more of an academic endeavour than anything, with discoveries and observation limited to phenomena like galaxies, nebulae and the like. Even planets discovered until now have all been uninhabitable except for perhaps a few, but even those potentially inhabitable planets discovered (Gliese 581d for example) are still different enough from our Earth that it still feels like more academia to most. Once extra-solar Earths are discovered, however, these telescopes will not be just objects used to peer into the sky at different types of academic phenomena but instead objects that will enable us to ascertain whether these planets are either suitable for us to explore, or are already inhabited. This will be analogous to the difference between using a pair of binoculars to look at a hill or a river, and noticing an area on that mountain or riverside that seems like it has been cleared for people to live...but the resolution is too low and it's impossible to tell at this distance. Create a better pair of binoculars though and you should be able to see in more detail whether someone is there or not. The excitement behind that is what makes the difference, and will likely result in a much larger investment in telescopes like these. After all, there really is no urgent desire to obtain a more detailed view of NGC 6822 or anywhere else:


A closeup of that is just more stars. Now imagine that we've discovered something that looks like this:



That's the planet on the right and its host star on the left. It might be like our own. With an improved telescope we may be able to turn that image into something like this:



Now we develop an even better telescope, and perhaps now we can see it with this degree of accuracy:



And you never know, perhaps something like this may eventually be possible.



It feels completely different from just snapping galaxy after galaxy, doesn't it?



As for the movie Avatar: see SpaceRef today for that. SpaceRef is of the opinion that NASA is missing a good opportunity to promote the movie when they have promoted other less scientifically interesting movies in the past but strangely don't seem to have any interest in Avatar.

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