University Of Wyoming Astronomer Helping To Design World's Most Powerful Telescope

Jun 1, 2017

UW Astronomy and Physics Associate Professor Michael Pierce
Credit University of Wyoming

A University of Wyoming astronomy professor is part of an international team of over 1000 scientists working to develop a telescope with an image up to 20 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Michael Pierce specializes in understanding the evolution of galaxies. He said the 30-meter telescope, as it’s called, will help do that.

“The light from the sun that we see, you know, left the sun about eight minutes ago,” Pierce explained. “But with the 30-meter telescope, we’ll be able to look back in time about ten billion years. So we can’t travel in time, but the telescope allows us to look back in time.”

Pierce said the technology making this possible was developed for military use but has recently been declassified.

The hope is to build the telescope on Hawaii’s big island where there’s the perfect combination of high elevations and smooth winds. But Native Hawaiians say the area is considered a sacred site and are disputing the plan. Pierce says there are several large telescopes already in the area though. But he said the second-best location has just been secured on Spain’s Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

Pierce is working on a critical piece of the 30-meter telescope, an instrument that will allow it to view near infrared wavelengths. Just this single instrument will cost up to $30 million. That’s because of the unique materials needed to create it.

“Glass does not work in the infrared and so all of these optical materials are grown, crystalline materials that are grown inside specialized ovens, and opticians then grind them to make lenses out of them. And it’s really quite the thing. It’s really quite exotic,” Pierce said.

He said the telescope itself will be as large as a basketball court but requires instrumentation refined down to within a millionth of an inch within that size. Besides the U.S., the project is getting financial support from Japan, China, Canada, and India as well. It’s expected to cost up to $1.6 billion. Pierce said he hopes to see UW engineers help in the construction of it.

The telescope is slated for completion by 2025.