Moments ago, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that they made a revolutionary discovery, one that they will be unveiling to the world on Monday (October 16th). According to the media advisory released today by the ESO, scientists have observed an astronomical phenomenon that has never been witnessed before.
Beyond that, no information is available regarding this most recent announcement.
The last time that astronomers unveiled a groundbreaking discovery of this nature was when scientists working at LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) detected gravitational waves. Ultimately, the find ushered us into a new era in astronomy, allowing us to see the universe as never before.
To clarify, before this detection, we were only able to perceive the cosmos through observations of electromagnetic radiation—through gamma rays, x-rays, visible light, and so on. Thanks to the LIGO discovery, we can now observe the very ripples of spacetime itself.
Of course, there are a number of mysteries that scientists have yet to explain in relation the origins and evolution of the cosmos. As such, it is difficult to pin down the specific nature of this observation—perhaps scientists finally observed dark energy, the mysterious force that is thought to make up approximately 73 percent of the universe, or perhaps it is a discovery that scientists never before fathomed. Stay tuned.
The construction of the world’s largest telescope has begun. At a ceremony at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile, officials gathered to celebrate the first stone of the European Extremely Large Telescope’s (E-ELT) long-awaited construction. Sophisticated telescope projects like the E-ELT take many years, so we can expect another similar ceremony sometime in 2021, when the E-ELT will see first light.
The E-ELT is the ESO’s flagship observatory. It’s primary mirror will be a 39.3 meter (129 ft.) monstrosity that will observe in the visible, near-infrared, and mid-infrared spectra. The construction of the site began in 2014, but this ceremony marks the beginning of the construction of the main telescope and its dome. The ceremony also marks the connection of the telescope to the electricity grid.
The Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, attended the ceremony. She was welcomed by the Director General of ESO Tim de Zeeuw, by ELT Programme Manager Roberto Tamai, and by other officials from the ESO. Staff from the La Silla Paranal Observatory, and numerous engineers and technicians—as well as numerous representatives from Chilean government and industry—also attended the ceremony.
“With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here.” – President of the Republic of Chile, Michelle Bachelet Jeria
In her speech, the President spoke in favor of the E-ELT, and in support of science and cooperation. “With the symbolic start of this construction work, we are building more than a telescope here: it is one of the greatest expressions of scientific and technological capabilities and of the extraordinary potential of international cooperation.”
At the ceremony, a time capsule from ESO was sealed into place. The capsule is a hexagon shaped, one-fifth scale model of the E-ELT containing a poster made of photographs of current ESO staff, and a copy of the book detailing the E-ELT’s science goals.
The first stone ceremony is definitely an important milestone for this Super Telescope, but it’s just one of the milestones reached by the E-ELT in the past two weeks.
The secondary mirror for the E-ELT has already been cast, and the ESO has announced that the contracts for the primary mirror have now been signed. The primary mirror segment blanks, all 798 of them, will be made by the Germany company SCHOTT. Once produced, they will be polished by the French company Safran Reosc. Safran Reosc will also mount and test the mirror segments.
“This has been an extraordinary two weeks!” – Tim de Zeeuw, European Southern Observatory’s Director General
Tim de Zeeuw, ESO’s Director General, is clearly excited about the progress being made on the E-ELT. At the contract signing, de Zeeuw said, “This has been an extraordinary two weeks! We saw the casting of the ELT’s secondary mirror and then, last Friday, we were privileged to have the President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, attend the first stone ceremony of the ELT. And now two world-leading European companies are starting work on the telescope’s enormous main mirror, perhaps the biggest challenge of all.”
It’s taken an enormous amount of work to get to the construction stage of the world’s largest telescope. Scientist’s, engineers, and technicians have been working for years to get this far. But without the contribution of Chile, none of it would happen. Chile is the world’s astronomy capital, and they continue working with the ESO and other nations to drive scientific discovery forward.
The E-ELT has three broad-based science objectives. It will:
Probe Earth-like exoplanets for signs of life
Study the nature of dark energy and dark matter
Observe the Universe’s early stages to understand our origins and the origin of galaxies and solar systems
Along the way, it will no doubt raise new questions that we can’t even imagine yet.
It sounds like the hackneyed plot to a science fiction movie: a secretive group of billionaires, scientists, financiers, and philanthropists meet to draw up plans for the world’s first interstellar spacecraft.
The problem is: this is no cheesy sci-fi flick. This is real life…it’s actually happening, as you read this, in the form of Yuri and Julia Milner’s “Breakthrough Starshot” program, established in April of last year.
It falls under the umbrella of the “Breakthrough Initiatives,” an ambitious, well-funded program of scientific research into the big questions. Are we lone motes of intelligence in an awful sea of loneliness, or are there other minds waiting to communicate with ours? Can we reach other worlds? And can our species act in concert to make contact with our brother minds in the universe?
And quietly, with the backing of some of the world’s keenest and most innovative minds—Stephen Hawking and Mark Zuckerberg, to name just a few—the Breakthrough Starshot program is drafting the architecture for what some are calling “the Big Jump:” mankind’s first great leap across the gulf of space that separates us from the nearest stars.
So far, the plan is in its infancy. There are some technological hurdles to overcome, but with time, money, and plenty of research, there is every reason to hope these won’t prove insurmountable.
The idea is simple: build a “StarChip”—a gram-scale nanocraft (roughly the size of a postage stamp) outfitted with miniaturized electronics, cameras, computers and power source—and hitch it to a lightweight “lightsail.” Then use a laser array, or “light beamer,” to accelerate the whole apparatus to something like 20% of the speed of light.
That’ll put you in the neighborhood of Proxima b in about 20 years from launch. Optimistically, the team is hoping for an “arrive-by” date of 2060; of course, this all depends on the progress of technology, which encompasses everything from miniaturized electronics and computers, lasers, battery technology, materials science, and really long-distance communications.
In the meantime, the Breakthrough Starshot team is making progress on other fronts. It’s not enough to just build an interstellar spacecraft; ideally, you want to know where to send the thing. And that’s why they’ve recently inked a deal with the European Southern Observatory to outfit the Very Large Telescope (VLT) with some potent instrumentation to scan the Alpha Centauri system for potentially habitable—or at least interesting—planets. Observations are expected to begin in 2019.
These questions are why the team wants to adapt the VLT to search for planets in the Alpha Centauri double-star system. Breakthrough Initiatives will pay to upgrade the telescope to make this search possible; they want to install an instrument module built by Kampf Telescope Optics on the VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared), which will use adaptive optics to enhance the telescope’s ability to distinguish planetary signatures from the glare of their stars. A coronagraph (used to block stellar light), jointly developed by the University of Liège and Uppsala University, will also be rigged to further enhance the observatory’s ability to detect the tiny specks of planetary light.
The objective for Breakthrough Starshot, in the coming decades, is to thoroughly examine the Alpha Centauri system while the technology for the “StarChip” nanocraft is in development. Hopefully, by the time the spacecraft are ready, the team will have compiled a serviceable map of our neighboring planetary system, and will be able to select a promising target and chart their probes an interesting flight plan decades in advance.
Shooting for the Stars
This is all heartening news for those who are longing for the time when humankind will finally reach out and touch the stars. Slow, quiet progress is being made by the Breakthrough Starshot program; and we can expect further advances in the many scientific and engineering disciplines the project subsumes.
We’ve finished the first, cursory exploration of our Solar System, and though there’s still much more to discover, our species—with characteristic restlessness and impatience—looks to further horizons. The Big Jump is the next logical step; we want to see what’s beyond that mountain range ahead, and we’re racing to do everything in our power to scale its loftiest peak and survey the undiscovered country it hides from sight.
Of course, getting there—really, physically stepping out onto the soil of the planet of an alien sun—is the great dream, and some of our greatest minds have worked on the heady problem of how to build reasonable starships. Some of their ideas are fascinating and even plausible; some less so. Realistically, our technology is centuries away and at least one step up on the Kardashev scale from being able to send human beings even to nearby Proxima b. But that’s an estimation that recks very little of the notorious variable of human ingenuity; there’s just no telling what marvelous new technologies we might develop in the decades to come.
For the time being, we’ll have to content ourselves with tiny probes and—if we’re lucky—maybe a few grainy images of distant planets, pieced together with great effort from a faint signal trickling across 4 light-years.