Australia’s starring role in the next great eye on the sky
If you haven’t heard about the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) it’s time to tune in. Along with its cousins the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the US Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), the GMT will be a telescope of an entirely different magnitude to any that has ever existed.
The Australian connection to the GMT is being forged in northern NSW through one of the grand elders of optical astronomy.
The recently reincarnated AAO – the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Coonabarabran – was the most advanced telescope in the world when it was opened in 1974. At 4 metres it was one of the largest telescopes of its day and the first to be computer operated.
There are far larger telescopes in the world nowadays yet the AAO remains amazingly productive. In the world ranking of telescopes based on academic productivity, the AAO still ranks 5th, (the Hubble telescope is numero uno): not bad for a 36 year old.
Today the largest telescope in the world is the Gran Telescopio Canarias at La Palma in the Canary Islands which is a 10.4 metre telescope.
And so in this context the GMT will be a monster. With a primary mirror 24.5 metres in diameter, it will be ten times more powerful than the Hubble telescope.
It is due to be built by 2019 on the Las Campanas Peak high in the Andes in Chile: the best site in the world for telescopes. The partners in the GMT are Australia, South Korea and a consortium of US universities.
The GMT, the TMT and the E-ELT will allow us to look deeper into the universe. We will be able to see planets in distant solar systems with enough clarity to determine what elements and molecules are present on that planet.
And here is where the promise of the GMT becomes truly profound. By being able to determine the chemical composition of these planets we will be able to look for those molecules which are unmistakenly a product of life: such as large quantities of CO2.
The GMT will be able to see if a planet has biomarkers. It won’t tell us what sort of life produced the biomarkers. It won’t allow us to communicate with that life.
But the GMT will allow us to pinpoint a spot in the cosmos where life has existed and in the process finally determine that we are not alone in the universe.
It will be a moment in human history the equal of no other.
The GMT is just one mega science project in which Australia is playing a leading role. In the Netherlands two weeks ago the Australian science minister, Kim Carr, represented our country in relation to another – the Square Kilometre Array telescope (SKA) – at the SKA Forum.
In terms of global astronomical infrastructure the SKA is the mother of them all. The SKA will be an array of radio telescopes, integrated through IT into one unit that will have a combined surface area of one square kilometre. That’s the better part of the size of Adelaide’s CBD. This is a multi billion dollar project which will see its host become the global centre of radio astronomy as well as, in all probability, a global centre of information technology. And Australia is down to one of two countries competing for the host rights.
The SKA will allow us to see further back in time than ever before to the very edge of the big bang, to the era of first-light.
There is something special about astronomy.
When Galileo looked through his telescope and made observations about the heavens, he entered a debate about whether the earth was or was not the centre of the universe. It was a debate far more profound than science. It was about how humanity was special or whether we were special at all. It was a debate which went to the very heart of the human condition.
The GMT and the SKA will do the same. In looking to the origins of the universe they will speak to every person’s desire to understand where we come from. And in identifying other life out there they will speak to humanity’s eternal battle against loneliness.
Like no other area of science astronomy engages philosophy and in the process tells us much about ourselves. As astronomers gaze to the heavens our daily lives are placed in stark contrast. Fundamental lessons are learnt.
Perhaps the most important is that when your job is dealing with the cosmos earthly disputes can seem a little trivial. And so amongst all they will discover the greatest point astronomers will continue to make is to reaffirm: that which we have in common is so much more important than that which divides.
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