The Next Generation Of Space Telescopes Will Open Up The Universe Like Never Before

What will they reveal?

It was 1609 when Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo utilised a telescope he built himself to survey our vast night sky. Through a little cosmos keyhole, he became one of the first to witness our moon’s mountains and craters; the sunspots of our sun; the four moons of Jupiter; and a ribbon of dispersed light later revealed as the myriad stars of our own Milky Way galaxy.

From these early discoveries, humanity began to unravel one celestial secret after another. We saw the faint glow of distant stars, nebulae and galaxies, and had the groundbreaking revelation that we on Earth revolved around the Sun, not it around us. We had taken baby steps into what has flourished into a grand era of space exploration, one propelled today by advances in technology.

The Hubble Space Telescope, one of Earth’s most productive and renowned pieces of such technology, recently commemorated its 25th year in orbit. To celebrate, the telescope released an awe-inspiring, high-definition ‘revisit’ of the M16 Eagle Nebula – otherwise known as the ‘Pillars of Creation’ – as well as an insanely zoom-able, 1.5GB panoramic view of the approaching Andromeda Galaxy.

A video zooming in on the image quickly went viral, clocking up over four million views since being uploaded on January 6.

Despite the marvel of these images, the reality is that the old girl is getting past her prime. In continual need of repairs and still running on an Intel 486 microprocessor from 1989 — that’s as old as Daniel Radcliffe — the Hubble is growing outdated, and of retrieving certain data needed by modern astronomers and scientists.

But the near future promises a new generation of telescopes, to replace their aging parents; revolutionary machines enlivened with the same philosophy as the Hubble: to break us free of the skyway’s chains, and explore the dark beyond.

Also, they’re turning astronomers into giddy schoolgirls.

The E-ELT – European Extreme Large Telescope

It’s no wonder people hailing from Chile are so grounded and lovely; the lucky bastards were raised staring up at this every night:


The mesmerising sky of the Atacama Desert, Chile.

The sky-scape in Chile is so spectacular because environmental conditions render the atmosphere incredibly clear. This, and the fact some areas are extremely radio-quiet, has made the country one of astronomy’s most favoured locations for the next generation of telescopes.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is in charge of building the largest optical/near infrared telescope to have ever been constructed: the E-ELT — otherwise known as the European Extremely Large Telescope. Scientists are not exactly known for their literary creativity. (Before you jump to their defence: the E-ELT’s Chilean sibling is the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and both will the proposed Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).)


The planning itinerary for all future telescopes (credit: XKCD).

But scientists are known for their scientific fervour, and to build the E-ELT they decided to blow off the top of the 3,060m-high Cerro Armazones mountain range with dynamite.

When operational (hopefully by 2024), the E-ELT will use a gargantuan 39-meter primary mirror – completely trumping the eight-meter mirror of its optical predecessor, the Very Large Telescope. It will be about the size of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janerio, comprised from 798 hexagonal 1.4m wide segments. It also will include some revolutionary technology, like adaptive and active optics: a collection of over 6,000 activators that can bend the mirrors to adapt to the atmosphere.


Artist’s rendition of the E-ELT atop the Cerro Armazones.

Dr. Jochen Liske, a Programme Scientist for the E-ELT, says one of the most exciting prospects of the telescope will be to use it to study dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe.

“It’s something we don’t understand yet, and it’s very likely that there will be new physics involved,” Dr. Liske told Junkee. “But one very cool thing about the E-ELT, something I’m quite excited for, is to actually be able to watch the universe expanding in real time.

“We already know the light from galaxies gets ‘redshifted’ as it travels further across space to us, with its hue telling us how far away the object is. But redshift isn’t a ‘static’ change — the universe is dynamic and expanding, so the rate of these redshift properties are changing.”

“The E-ELT will be able to make such precise measurements that it can measure these changes over a time-scale of about 10 or 20 years”.

Dr. Liske says that despite his coworker’s skepticism of the E-ELT’s capacity to accomplish this feat, he believes it will work – and if it does, the E-ELT will be the only machine capable of doing it. “It’ll be like catching the universe in a speed-trap, with a radar gun”.

The E-ELT will be big news for astronomers, too; they’re so excited about it that they’ve even provided us with a virtual tour and a genuine live image of the construction site every hour – even though there’s barely anything there yet.

The SKA – Square Kilometer Array

Unless you’re a radio astronomer, or obsessed with the Carl Sagan inspired film Contact, you may not have heard of a radio telescope before – let alone the SKA.

While optical telescopes see in visible light – which we see in colour – a radio telescope sees in radio waves. These are right down the end of the electromagnetic spectrum, and have the advantage of being bigger than atoms, meaning that sometimes they can push right past them, enabling radio telescopes to see things in space even when it’s cloudy or when they’re obscured by cosmic dust or gas.


Artist’s rendition of SKA survey dishes.

When fully operational in 2024, the SKA will be the largest radio telescope ever constructed on Earth – with a data-collecting area of one square kilometer (hence the genius name).

Diverging from our usual understanding of telescopes, the SKA won’t be one large connected machine. Instead, it will be made up of thousands of small, disparate radio telescopes. These are already being built in some of Earth’s more radio-quiet and atmospherically clear environments, such as South Africa and our very own Australian outback.


Artist’s rendition of SKA Australia Survey Telescopes.

With so many disparate radio telescopes, the SKA is able to use a technique called interferometry: the collection of data received individually, which is then collated and processed by an incomprehensibly powerful supercomputer. The SKA’s creators describe its power as analogous to one hundred million regular computers.

When complete, the SKA will be no ordinary telescope. It will be 10,000 times faster at surveying, and its sensitivity will be 50 times higher than any preexisting radio telescope on Earth. To put this in perspective, the SKA will be capable of detecting the tiny disturbance of an airport radar a distance tens of light years away. Let’s remind ourselves that the distance of only one light year – the distance light travels in 365 days – is approximately 9,461,000,000,000kms (the entire diameter of Earth is only 12,756kms).

Dr. James Green, a Project Scientist working on the SKA, says the telescope’s sensitivity would also allow them to probe fundamental mysteries of the universe, such as the structure of galaxies and terrestrial life.

“When considering something like the colossal structure of galaxies, previous radio telescopes have never been able to see much,” he says.

“But with the SKA, we’ll be able to look at the larger scale affect of something called cosmic magnetism, the magnetic fields between galaxies. For the first time we’ll be able to look at whether this had an affect on the early overall structure [and how they developed.”

The Millennium Simulation of the large-scale galaxy structure.

The Millennium Simulation of the large-scale galaxy structure.

Beyond this, the sensitivity of the SKA will also be used in the perpetual hunt for life outside earth. The SKA is not only capable of scanning for incredibly distant alien radio transmissions, but it’s able to detect amino acids – “the building blocks of life” – across friggin’ space.

“These sorts of projects would normally take decades to accomplish – too long that nobody can ever do them,” Dr. Green said. “Whereas now, with the SKA, people can actually attempt these discoveries. It’s a very exciting thing to be a part of.”

TJWT – The James Webb Telescope


Despite the differences between the two, the James Webb Space Telescope is already dubbed as the “successor to the Hubble”.

This is because they will both be space-based, optical telescopes – but while  the Hubble can only see  visible and ultra-violet light, the JWST will be capable of seeing beyond this into infrared.

This will allow an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to see further than the Hubble into uncharted regions of deep-space.

And scientists are blasting this machine worth a potential $8 billion dollars into orbit as soon as October 2018, on top of the rocket Ariane 5!

Portion of electromagnetic spectrum showing Hubble vs. Webb vs. SKA. CREDIT: NASA

Portion of electromagnetic spectrum showing Hubble vs. Webb vs. SKA.

The big golden honeycomb on the Webb’s back is a 6.5-wide primary mirror comprised of 18 segments – significantly less than that of the SKA or E-ELT, but still almost tripling the Hubble’s current 2.4m wide mirror.

To help keep the sun’s blinding heat out of its eyes, the Webb will have a one-in-a-kind sunshield membrane, shown below, spanning around 22m x 12m – about half the size of a Boeing 737. It will reflect heat so well that you will be able to boil water on one side, and liquefy nitrogen on another.

When orbiting at approximately 1.5 million kilometers around Earth (four times further then the moon), the Webb will be in prime position to do some exciting research – like looking upon the early epoch of our first stars and galaxies. The oldest star we’ve been able to check out is just shy of 13.7 billion years old; super senile, to be sure, but it’s not one of the first generation to emerge after the ‘Dark Ages’ – a time when electrons and protons hadn’t yet formed into the hydrogen comprising the first stars of the universe. The Webb will be one of the few next-generation telescopes capable of looking upon the dawn of the universe.


The evolution of the universe.

Beyond this, the Webb will also work alongside the E-ELT and NASA’s current Kepler telescope – – in the ongoing perusal of space for habitable exoplanets in 2015. While telescopes like the Kepler are more just ‘discovery’ telescopes, the Webb will enable astronomers to properly study the atmosphere of these wandering planets. The higher resolution of the Webb will also increase our chances of finding exoplanets closer to us, meaning we may find life on a nearby star.

So what’s next for us here in Australia?

Unfortunately it doesn’t look like Australia is going anywhere. The decision of the Federal government in July to cut $114 million from Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industrial Organisation (CSIRO)the same organisation that invented wi-fi – is a tragedy. It has resulted in over 850 staff losing their jobs – at least one fifth of their staff – including Nobel Prize contender San Thang.

This has ultimately affected the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science Division, and is in an influential part of why Australia isn’t a part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) – because it’s too expensive to be a part of. This means that Australia has no part in some innovative telescopes occurring overseas, like the E-ELT.

CSIRO are being treated like any other public service organisation, with their budget so slim that they can’t even afford to attend conferences. On top of similar cuts by ALP the year before, this adds up to over 1,400 jobs that have been lost at the CSIRO over the past two years.

The implications of this, more than anything, are simply depressing.

It appears that at the frontline of space exploration, our presence as a nation won’t be as prominent as some of us wish it were.

Jack Callil is a male human, freelance writer, and illustrator living in Melbourne. You can follow him at @Jack_Callil.