Optical diagram of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation, CC BY-ND
When astronomers point their telescopes up at the sky to see distant supernovae or quasars, they’re collecting light that’s traveled millions or even billions of light-years through space. Even huge and powerful energy sources in the cosmos are unimaginably tiny and faint when we view them from such a distance. In order to learn about galaxies as they were forming soon after the Big Bang, and about nearby but much smaller and fainter objects, astronomers need more powerful telescopes.
Perhaps the poster child for programs that require extraordinary sensitivity and the sharpest possible images is the search for planets around other stars, where the body we’re trying to detect is extremely close to its star and roughly a billion times fainter. Finding earth-like planets is one of the most exciting prospects for the next generation of telescopes, and could eventually lead to discovering extraterrestrial signatures of life. Read more.