Monster telescope breaks ground, will offer deepest views of universe

What promises to be the most advanced and sensitive telescope in the world, the massive Thirty Meter Telescope, officially breaks ground Tuesday in Hawaii. When completed, it will offer the deepest and sharpest views of our universe yet.

This thing is a monster. At 30 meters (98 feet), the TMT’s main mirror alone is nearly one-third the length of a football field. The instruments that go along with that mirror will be room-sized and mounted alongside it on a platform in the observatory near the summit of Mauna Kea, on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Part of what makes the telescope so exciting is that its size and power will let scientists see things farther out into the universe -- and that means peering further back in time. Caltech, a partner in building TMT, says the telescope will see 13 billion years back in history of the universe.

The TMT is intended to scope out the large-scale structure of the universe, shining new light on dark energy, dark matter, black holes and as-yet-undiscovered mysteries.


If all goes according to schedule, the telescope will be complete and receiving data in the early 2020s, Caltech physicist Ed Stone told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday a few hours before the official groundbreaking in Hawaii. The telescope has been in development for 10 years, and he was clearly excited for the ceremony.

There’s some competitive urgency for the project to be up and running. Hot on its heels is the EELT -- the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will have a 39-meter main mirror, 9 meters more than the TMT, creating what its builders are calling "the world’s biggest eye on the sky.” That project is also predicting “first light” in the early 2020s.

Scientists are competitive?

“Sure, there is always competition,” Stone said, “and we hope to be there first, using the 30-meter telescope before any others.”


But “the universe is immense,” he noted, and there’s plenty of room for more than one giant telescope.

Caltech, the University of California and institutions in Canada, Japan, China and India are partners in TMT. They surveyed a range of sites but settled on the mountain in Hawaii because it afforded the elevation needed plus a minimum amount of atmospheric turbulence -- the stuff that makes stars look like they’re twinkling.

Adaptive optics will correct for any remaining turbulence, stabilizing the light and making more stars visible. That factor plus others, including the larger mirror to collect more light, means the TMT will be ultra-sensitive -- 81 times more so than the Keck telescopes, also located at Mauna Kea.

In the main mirror, 492 hexagonal segments “like tiles in a floor” will be kept aligned by computer so they’re always within a millionth of an inch of one another, Stone said. Instruments will be controlled remotely from a lower elevation, and crews will work steadily each day to prepare the telescopes for use every night of the year.

As Stone noted, there’s a lot of space to see and only so many hours of viewing time. The TMT will be in great demand.

“There just aren’t enough nights to do everything.”

The groundbreaking is at 3 p.m. PDT (noon in Hawaii). You can watch it live.

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