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.
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?Follow @telescoper