Giant Magellan Telescope: Chief scientists explain all about ‘alien planet hunter’ GMT
Once operational as expected in 2028, the telescope will perch on the summit of Chilean wilderness, housed in a 22-story-tall building already under construction. Here, in the high altitudes of the Atacama Desert, the ultra-dry air offers some of the clearest views of the night sky anywhere on Earth.
The giant telescope will boast 10 times the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope, revealing distant galaxies, the birth of stars, and even the compositions of alien exoplanet atmospheres.
A large fraction planet of stars do also have planets in the habitable zone.
Dr Rebecca Bernstein
Dr Cindy Hunt, VP of Development and Communications and Chief Scientist Dr Rebecca Bernstein revealed their confidence the telescope will be successful in discovering planets capable of supporting basic forms of alien life.
Dr Bernstein told Express.co.uk: “If I were a betting person, I would say that we will [find planets fit for alien life].
“When we started looking for extrasolar planets, we had no idea how many there would be.
“And now what we know there are planets around the vast majority of stars out there.
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“Most stars form with a planetary system of more than one planet orbiting them.”
And although calculating whether such planetary systems lie in a zone hospitable enough for organic life, is a harder measurement to make, the chief scientist is confident this can be achieved.
She said: “A large fraction planet of stars do also have planets in the habitable zone.
“So every time we make progress at looking at our universe in this way we find Earth is not unique.
“It seems very unlikely to me Earth is the only planet that’s ever formed in the universe or even in our galaxy, that would have the right conditions to support life.
“Whether or not a planet is close enough to us, that we can make the measurements we need to make sensitive enough to demonstrate there’s organic life on that planet, I don’t know.
“So it’s just a matter of whether or not the situations are right for us to find these planets.”
The telescope’s almost-unparalleled size is due to the wide array of astronomy its designers intend to study, ranging from stellar evolution, galaxy evolution and understanding where the first objects came from in the universe.
Dr Hunt thinks this long list will only grow as our knowledge about the mechanics of the universe expands.
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She said: “I think one of the things that excites me most is all of the questions we don’t know to ask yet.
“I think every new big telescope finds things you don’t expect, and we have to dive in and figure it out.
“And in my mind, these unknown unknowns are some of the most exciting things.”
Dr Bernstein explained the benefits of basing a telescope on Earth instead of putting one into orbit involve the ability to use the latest and best technology.
She said: “The most important thing about being able to get a super-sharp image and the most important thing for being able to collect a lot of light and see very faint things is the size of the telescope.
“Right now the biggest telescope in space is about two and a half metres, about 100 inches and the biggest telescopes we have on Earth are 10 metres in diameter.
“For the wavelengths we’re talking about – optical or near-infrared wavelengths.
“So you can get better resolution, you can just get a sharper image and you can see much, much fainter things.
“The other thing is you have much more modern technology on the ground because it takes years and years and years – decades, in fact – to launch a telescope into space.
“And so by the time you launch a telescope into space you are guaranteed to be launching old technology.
“And the other thing is that if you launch a telescope, the telescope has to survive liftoff.
“So things are very limited to being much more robust and so again, we have many more options for the use of sensitive equipment on the ground than we do in space.
“So there’s just a lot of things that are easier to do on the ground that lead to better observations and some in most cases.”
Both scientists were also keen to stress the importance of working with women on the GMT team – and in science in general.
Dr Hunt said: “Science needs really creative thinking to really come up with new ideas, new explanations, new approaches, and the only way to do that is to have a diversity of thought.
“And women are half the Earth, representing the half the Earth’s brainpower.
“If there’s a kid out there excited about looking for these signatures of life on other planets, I want them to have the ability to study that if that’s what they really want to do.
“We never know where the next great brain and science is going to come from and I don’t want there to be any barriers to stop somebody who wants to study anything approaching these questions.”
Dr Bernstein added: “It is simply demonstrable that the more variety you have in people’s backgrounds, the more creativity and the more different approaches you’re going to have to any problem.”
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