The building of large telescopes used to be in the realm of individuals or small organizations. This has changed dramatically over the last several decades because the advancement of our abilities to build them has made extraordinarily large telescopes possible.
These cutting edge telescopes are extremely expensive to make and they take a decade or more to complete. But this hasn’t stopped them from being built. There are large organizations, sometimes multi-national that are taking on the task of building state of the art telescopes that will invariably change our perception of the universe.
Let’s take a look at four telescopes currently in production. Three of them are earth-bound and the fourth is a space telescope that will orbit around the sun.
- The ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) When this telescope is completed in 2025 it will be the largest telescope ever built. The site for it is on the Cerro Armazones mountain in Chile’s Atacama desert. The project is financed by the ESO (European Southern Observatory) which is a consortium of 16 different European countries, along with the country of Chile. Dozens of cutting edge European technology companies are collaborating and building the project.
- The GMT (Giant Magellan Telescope) The telescope will be built at Las Campanas Observatory (LCO) in the Andes mountain range in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It has a unique seven mirror design. And it is scheduled to begin operation in 2027 but not with all seven mirrors. At that time it will have four mirrors and additional mirrors will be added on a yearly basis after that. The GMT project is being run by the GMTO corporation which is a partnership between twelve different organizations including Harvard, and The Smithsonian.
- 30 Meter telescope (in Mauna Kea Hawaii) This project is being managed by The TMT International Observatory LLC (TIO) which is a collaboration of multiple organizations and universities. It is scheduled to be completed in 2027.
- JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) The heir apparent to the Hubble Space Telescope and ten times more powerful. This is a space telescope that NASA is currently designing and building. It is scheduled to be launched in 2021. The mirror is 21 feet in diameter while the Hubble mirror is just under 8 feet in diameter.
The ELT – Extremely Large Telescope
European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) (39 meter segmented mirror) It is located on the Cerro Armazones mountain in Chile’s Atacama desert.This telescope is a behemoth that will be by far the largest telescope in the world when it is completed. I have read different reports on the timeline of this telescope but it should be completed in either 2024 or 2025.
A note about the ELT: It is going to be ten times more powerful than the Hubble telescope. This telescope is going to be an event in human history, in my humble opinion.
The GMT (Giant Magellan Telescope)
The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) (7 mirrors each 8.4 meters in size) It is estimated that it will begin operation in 2027 with four of the seven mirrors. It will be constructed in the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. They are actually building eight mirrors so they have a spare for maintenance. This picture shown here is an artists rendition of what the telescope would look like. Truck in the picture gives you an idea of the size of this telescope. And the brilliant thing I want to point out is that quite unique configuration of seven telescope mirrors.
Photo credit: Courtesy TMT Observatory Corporation
30 Meter Telescope in Mauna Kea – (segmented mirror with 492 segments)
The James Webb Space Telescope
While this telescope will also be in space just like the Hubble telescope there are some significant differences with this one. .
First off this telescope will not be in Earth Orbit. It will circle around the Sun in an orbit similar to that of the Earth, and in a place where we can always communicate with it.
Secondly, and this is the big deal;. It is the next version of the Hubble. It is the super powered upgrade – the next generation of space telescope. The mirror of the James Webb is significantly larger than the Hubble. This one is 6.5 meters across (21 feet) whereas the Hubble mirror is 7.9 feet in diameter.
And because it is in space, and so much larger than the Hubble telescope, it is going to give us views of the universe like we have never before seen. I believe this telescope is going to discover things that radically change our view of the universe and in parrticular the beginning of the universe.
One of the goals of this telescope is to peer as deep into the beginnings of the universe as possible.
Notice in the first picture how between the space craft and the telescope you see a series of five layers of something. it looks like five layers of plastic or cloth. That is a heat shield. It will protect the telescope from the heat coming off the sun, the earth and the moon. This is necessary to keep the telescope operating at maximum efficiency.