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The future of astronomy: five new ways to observe the universe

11 July 2018


Galaxies, planets, and colliding stars… ever looked up and wondered where it all comes from and if we are alone in the universe? We are living in one of the most exciting times for astronomy thanks to advances in technology challenging the way we perceive the night sky. As we look into the depths of space, we are also able to look back in time and explore how life began. Join us as we take a closer look at five major astronomy projects supported by UK funding. These incredible bits of tech are part of a global family probing the mysteries of the universe and shaping the future of astronomy.


JWST

From peering into dusty regions of our own galaxy, to studying the birth of stars and planetary systems and detecting light from the first stars and galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will add invaluable knowledge about the universe.

The telescope will have an aperture of around 6.5 metres and carry a suite of infrared cameras and other astronomical instruments. Located 1.5 million kilometres from Earth and held at the L2 Lagrangian point, where the gravities of the earth and sun balance, JWST will allow us to look back into the universe like never before. This remarkable technology exists thanks to huge international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency.

Scientists and engineers in the UK Astronomy and Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire led the development of the Mid-Infra-Red Instrument (MIRI), one of the fundamental instruments allowing JWST to see the universe in a different light.


ELT

Positioned on top of a mountain in Chile, the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will peer out into space allowing us to image planets outside of our solar system to see if they could potentially host life. It will be the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope with a main mirror measuring 39.3 metres across. The UK along with the 15 other member states of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have supported the construction of the ELT, with the first of approximately 800 mirrors being cast this year, 2018.

The ELT will be more powerful than any other telescope in existence, gathering 100,000,000 times more light than the human eye. For astronomers, physicists and stargazers everywhere, developing a telescope of this size with these capabilities is a major priority because it will enable new types of science, including studying the atmospheres of planets orbiting stars other than the sun.


SKA

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is not a single machine – it will be a combination of many radio telescope antennas scattered over a wide area that act acting as one single antenna (array). It will be comprised of two separate arrays of telescopes spread across Australia and Southern Africa, and have a proposed collecting area of at least one square kilometre.

Unlike single telescopes, the SKA will have a far greater surveying speed, producing 10-times the data traffic of the global internet.

Supported by a global consortium, the SKA will help to answer key questions in astrophysics and astronomy. It will look at the role of dark energy and dark matter in our universe, enable scientists to trace the evolution of magnetic fields, and probe the formation of molecules that are essential for life.


Gaia

Our current knowledge of our galaxy is largely based on indirect measurement, theoretical models and assumptions.

Imagine what we could discover and the questions we could answer if we had a map of our galaxy? Well, Gaia is providing just that – a telescope designed to make the largest 3D map of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Positioned 1.5 million kilometres from the earth, the ESA’s Gaia mission is mapping positions, velocities and properties of over one billion stars. Each star will be observed 70 times over the planned five-year mission. But it is not just stars it’s able to map; Gaia is able to detect tens of thousands of asteroids and comets, along with potential exoplanets and supernova explosions.

When Gaia made its first data announcement, in September 2016, it had found approximately 1.1 billion objects. At the next announcement, due in 2018, it is estimated Gaia will have found well over 1.5 billion objects in our galaxy.


LIGO

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is unlike a traditional telescope. Rather than looking at light, LIGO works by measuring the ripples in space-time called gravitational waves. These are created by events big enough to affect the fabric of space-time such as mergers of pairs of neutron stars or black holes or by supernovae.

LIGO consists of two widely separated detectors in Washington State and Louisiana, USA. Each perpendicular arm is around 4km long. Lasers travelling up and down the arms measure the smallest change in length that indicate that a gravitational wave has passed through.

It is complemented by the Virgo detector in Italy and the GEO 600 instrument in Germany. As part of a series of upgrades, supported by 92 collaborating institutions including several in the UK, LIGO is still growing with a third detector site being developed in India.

LIGO and Virgo operate together as a collaboration and will soon be joined by the KAGRA detector in Japan. Collaborative operation allows simultaneous observation of gravitational waves produced by the same event allowing determination of where the signals are coming from and other aspects of their nature. The addition of gravitational wave data to those from other telescopes is opening up an exciting new field within multi-messenger astronomy.

Together these telescopes will tell a story about our universe. Through advances in technology, engineering and collaboration between countries all around the world, these telescopes are driving forward new fields of astronomical exploration. The UK has been at the forefront of this work and it doesn’t end there.

Technology developed for these missions has helped to create spinout companies that use this expertise to improve life here on earth. From revolutionising laser eye surgery to advances in telecommunications, the world is continuing to develop, but who knows where it will lead to next?

Find out more about big telescopes and STFC’s astronomy and space science.

Last updated: 04 September 2018

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