Astronomy’s Next Big Thing

I woke up this morning to hear an item about astronomy on the 7 o’clock news on BBC Radio 3. That doesn’t happen very often so I thought I’d follow it up with a short post before I head off to work.

The news item I heard followed up an announcement yesterday that the governing Council of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) had  approved the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) programme – which is to produce what will be the world’s largest ground-based optical telescope. Extremely Large is putting in mildly, of course. Its main mirror will be a colossal 39 metres in diameter (with a collecting area of almost a thousand square metres) and will have to made in bits with a sophisticated adaptive optics system to ensure that it can counter the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere and the limitations  of its own structure to  reach a phenomenal angular resolution of 0.001 arc seconds.

For more details on the telescope, see the official website here or the wikipedia article here, where you can also read more about the science to be done with E-ELT.

This telescope has been in planning for many years, of course. In fact, it began as an even more ambitious concept, a 100-metre diameter monster which I used to call the FLT. Over the years, however, for a mixture of technical and financial reasons, this was progressively de-scoped.

Yesterday’s announcement doesn’t mean that work will start immediately on building the E-ELT. That won’t happen until sufficient funding is secured and in the case of some countries, governmental approval obtained. Recent decisions by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council to close down telescopes in Hawaii clearly anticipated the need to make some headroom in future budgets to enable this to happen. The best-case scenario is probably for E-ELT to take a decade or so to complete.

Of course the concentration of funding in ever and ever larger international facilities – such as E-ELT and the Square Kilometre Array – does create tensions within the UK astronomical community. Many scientists do excellent work with relatively small facilities, including those about to be closed down to make room for E-ELT. In the near future, the only ground-based optical facilities to which UK astronomers will have access will be operated by the European Southern Observatory. With fewer but larger (and more expensive) facilities operated by international agencies carrying out projects run by vast consortia, observational astronomy is definitely going the way of particle physics…

The problem  comes when the Next Big Thing  is too big to be built.  We might have already seen X-ray astronomy bubble burst in this way. To quote my learned friend Andy Lawrence:

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.

What will come after the Large Hadron Collider, or the E-ELT?  Is Big Science about to get too big?

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9 Responses to “Astronomy’s Next Big Thing”

  1. the cost of big science is ‘relatively’ small -the E-ELT could be funded using 0.1% of the planet’s expenditure on military during 2012. now, if you had a trillion dollars to spend on science, what would you do with it? :)

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, that’s a rational argument but one that’s hard to make to politicians.

      And if I had a trillion dollers I would use it on energy research…fusion and renewables.

  2. Navneeth Says:

    Wait for Extremely Large Science[TM]!

  3. Navneeth Says:

    Ben Moore: “the E-ELT could be funded using 0.1% of the planet’s expenditure on military during 2012″

    I hate reading stuff like this. Not that I’m a denier of any sort;it’s just that this tide cannot be turned around in the foreseeable future. :(

  4. James Last Says:

    Its not only politicians. As a non particle/astro-physcisist I’m not very inclined to put CURRENTLY further huge sums in huge projects for fundamental research in these fields. And as many I started studying physics because of my interest in astrophysics and the big questions. Adaptive Optics is a good point. It was clear in the 90s that a high-class and cheap AO technology could reduce strongly the costs of ground-based telescopes and outclass some space-telescopes. Of coure, no researcher wants to wait when new measurment techniques seem possible.

    But better laser and nano-mechanical systems could improve such telescopes a lot. Funding such branches more is in my opinion CURRENTLY the better strategy. Same for high-temperature superconductors for particle physics.

    I dont believe in pico and femto-technology before 2100 if there are technological potentials for society at all. And fundamental research in these fields more and more touches the area of pseudo-science with theories that become hard to test experimentally. Huges fundings sums, less reliable and interesting knowledge triggering other fields in natural sciences like quantum computing, complex systems, biology, energy…

    Or can you give a best case scenario, which important insights might follow from furter huge projects in these fields in the next 10-20 years for society and technology we should not wait for?

  5. Alan Penny Says:

    The {\it Next Big Thing} won’t necessarily come from a big telescope.

    The three biggest things in the last twenty years have come from small and cheap telescopes: The CMB from the metre-class COBE and WMAP; exoplanets from at the 1.9 metre OHP telescope; and the cosmological constant (half from the High-Z team using at the start the 4 metre CTIO telescope).

    As Simon White commented, in astronomy there is a danger in putting {\it all} your money into one big thing.

    • Isobel Hook Says:

      A quick correction here (sorry I’m late!) – The discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe using supernovae did involve the CTIO 4m but also relied heavily on the Keck 10m telescope and later the Hubble space telescope, both of which are the largest telescopes in their class.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I didn’t realise that E-ELT was a scaledown of the Frightfully Large Telescope.

    I understand that Martin Ryle said postwar that the Americans would eventually win by building bigger and bigger telescopes, but that British astronomers had a window in which they would remain intellectually competitive through being spurred by necessity to think harder.

  7. [...] wrote a post linking this to the earlier Athena shenanigans : OIR and X-ray astronomy seem to be hitting the [...]

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