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Giant Magellan Telescope to see the beginning of time itself

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 26th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists are engineering and constructing the next greatest telescope, one that will allow them to see, in the visual spectrum, further back in time than any other existing optical telescope. Although this telescope will be located on Earth, it will be 10 times more powerful than the Hubble.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The first of seven massive mirrors is complete, and the rest will be finished by 2022. Each mirror is 27 feet across and takes a year to polish.

This engineering marvel requires laser precision and the slightest mistake will render a component utterly unusable. With a price tag of $700 million, the Giant Magellan Telescope will be the greatest toy in astronomy's tool chest when it becomes fully operational in 2022. The telescope will be situated in Chile's high Atacama Desert.

The project is important because with the telescope's magnifying power, scientists expect to be able to see back in time to when the first stars formed after the Big Bang. Thjis is near the beginning of time itself, since time only began with the creation of the universe.

They secret behind its power is twofold. Its precision optics will allow it to observe incredible details from very far away. The GMT will have 10 times the power of the Hubble Space Telescope. The second factor is its enormous size. Its seven 20 ton mirrors will gather more light because they are wide. A telescope is like a bucket for light, and the wider the bucket, the more light it can gather.

Wide scopes that gather more light can see fainter details. Faint objects become bright and what is invisible in smaller scopes becomes visible in the large.

Astronomers want to see this light because it acts like a time machine, allowing them to literally see what happened in the past. That is because light travels at a finite speed, so when we look at things, we see them not as they are at this moment, but as they were.

For example, when your friend waves at you, it takes the tiniest fraction of a second for the light to reach your eyes. However, if you could take ultra-precise measurements, you would notice that you are seeing your friend wave a fraction of a second after actually waving at you. But that difference is much too tiny to notice here.

More obviously, light from the Sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth. When we see the sun, we see it as it appeared eight minutes ago. When the sun rises and sets, the star has already passed above or below our horizon, but we see the light with an eight-minute delay. If we could see in real time, without any delay, sunrise and sunset would both occur eight minutes earlier!

It is the same with everything in the universe. When we look at distant stars and galaxies, we see them as they were years ago, not as they are now.

Looking back with more powerful telescopes then, we can see further back in time. Astronomers believe the universe was created some 13.72 billion years ago. The oldest object they have images of is believed to be a galaxy from 13.3 billion years ago, just 420 million years after the Big Bang.

With the GMT, astronomers expect to see the first stars ever created.

Beyond that, astronomers won't be able to see much more. Before the stars formed, or more precisely before the universe was 100,000 years old, there was no light in the universe. Other telescopes, such as those that detect other forms of radiation besides light, might be able to see farther back still, but the precise moment of creation will remain elusive.

Still, the telescope will answer some interesting questions. For example, when did the first stars form? When did the first black holes form? How did the earliest galaxies develop?

Scientists have theories for each of these questions, the telescope will either confirm of challenge them as it collects evidence.

Other questions abound. Was the universe actually created out of the Big Bang? Nearly all astronomers think so, but there is always the possibility of new evidence challenging accepted notions. This is why in science even virtual facts are still called theories.

Another great question is why the universe is lumpy, rather than having an even distribution of matter. It is a challenge to reason that matter was not spread evenly by the Big Bang, but instead is clumped in areas, forming galaxies, stars, and such.

Scientists also have their answers for this already, but the GMT may help to tell them if they are on the right track or wrong.

It will be some years before astronomers finish their project, but they are already playing with optics on the telescope's predecessor, the Magellan Telescope. That scope has been upgraded to produce images with twice the sharpness of the Hubble. It's not as powerful as the GMT will be, but it's enough to tide astronomers over until the big show starts in 2022.

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