Professor developing research for telescope half size of football stadium

On Kona Island, Hawaii, atop Mauna Kea at 14,000 feet, sit 13 telescopes mapping the universe.

Native Hawaiians have allowed one last telescope to be installed — the Thirty Meter, a facility half the size of a professional football stadium and designed to take in 200 times more light than Hubble Space Telescope

University of Wyoming physics and astronomy professor Mike Pierce was selected to be a member on one of eight teams tasked with developing research for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The teams for the Hawaiian scope are based out of Canada, India, Japan, China and the U.S. There are two more of the same telescopes in the works, each with their own eight teams, based out of Europe and a collection of private universities. Each team has about five-to-six researchers and scientists.

Construction of the Thirty Meter is scheduled to be done in eight-10 years, Pierce said. Each telescope costs about $1 billion and is expected to produce about 10 times the image sharpness of Hubble.

“The goal right now is to help define what science we want to do with these telescopes and lay the groundwork,” Pierce said. “The cost is so great, and the technology so sophisticated, we need real experts running it to maximize the science.”

Pierce’s research involves galaxy assembly, or studying the age at which galaxies form and the shape they take on. Hubble allows him to study galaxies up to about 10 billion light years away, Pierce said. Between when the universe was a quarter of its age and half its age, galaxies were chaotic and did not take any specific form. Pierce said when the universe was about half its age, about 90 percent of galaxies formed into two fairly simplistic shapes — spiral, like the Milky Way, or elliptical.

The Thirty Meter might provide more clarity as to why these galaxies formed in the ways they did, and help identify “fossil signatures,” Pierce said. The signatures are what he describes as wakes of supermassive black holes left behind in galaxies, and can lead to clues about their origins.

“We say we’re looking back in time,” Pierce said. “We’ll be studying motion within galaxies that are just faint smudges with Hubble, running the clock back at ever larger distances and essentially make a movie about the evolution of galaxies.”

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory, based in Tucson, Ariz., operates every observatory in the United States. Staff members were responsible for collecting astronomer applications after the National Science Foundation announced teams would be formed to work on the telescope.

Each telescope is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the National Science Foundation invested about $200 million for a share of the project. Operating costs per night for the planned telescope total $1 million.

Once it’s constructed, the telescope will be available after astronomers apply at least six months in advance of proposed use.

Pierce said the process will be similar to common practices for telescope use today. He and other UW faculty members compete with one another for time to use UW’s telescope.

Pierce said the teams will spend the next decade planning and developing the research to be conducted using the telescope.

He will work with UW students on his project ideas, while other members of other teams will develop their own.

When the telescope is completed, technical experts will operate it and collect the data from research proposals, similar to how most current telescopes, including Hubble, are run today, Pierce said. The researchers receive an email when the data is complete and available for download.

“The days of the astronomer just going up to the telescope and collecting data are gone,” Pierce said. “No one person can know everything about the telescopes and instruments. People all over the world are working on this big project that will kind of revolutionize what we know about the universe.”

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