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NASA has finished and stacked the Sunshield for the Webb Space Telescope and it’s now getting ready to test it. Look at this huge thing. That’s enough tinfoil to cover a roasted chicken — if the chicken was the size of Tyrannosaurus Rex. According to NASA, it provides the equivalent of a 1,000,000 Sun Protection Factor.
The biggest building boom in the history of astronomy is upon us. In Chile and Hawaii and in space, astronomers are getting powerful telescopes that dwarf the current state-of-the-art instruments. When the mountain blasting and the mirror polishing are all done, we will have the clearest and most detailed views of outer space ever.
Radio telescopes, which you may remember Jodie Foster intently listening to for signs of alien life in Contact, pluck out radio waves from far away space. Ordinary communications satellite dishes also pick up radio waves, but of manmade origin. So hmm, how easily can you convert one into another? It’s totally possible, according to New Zealand astronomers who detail how they turned an obsolete satellite dish into a radio telescope for astronomy.
A team of Yale astronomers got a little crafty recently. In an attempt to see parts of space that their big fancy telescopes weren’t showing them, they tied eight telephoto lenses together to create their own little homemade array. And then, thanks to their new invention, they quickly discovered seven new galaxies.
Briefly: Although the massive 66-antenna ALMA array in Chile’s Atacama desert has been online since last October when the last of its 12m radios was installed, the system has only been operating at a fraction of its potential resolution. But with the delicate delivery of 12 additional 7m radio dishes — the last of which just reached the top of the plateau just last Friday — the ALMA is finally set to stare into the deepest depths of the observable universe. [ESO]
Exoplanets — planets orbiting stars that aren’t our Sun — seem to be popping out of the cosmic woodwork now that we know where and how to look for them. The Kepler mission alone has discovered 961 of them, and it’s only looking at a tiny sliver of distant space. Just think of how many we’ll find when the new James Lick robotic telescope comes online and starts surveying one thousand of our closest solar neighbours.
It’s been almost five years since Gizmodo first reported on the Thirty Meter Telescope, a mega-telescope with a resolution ten times that of the Hubble. Now, it seems the long-delayed project’s time has come: Hawaii has agreed to lease a parcel of land for the telescope, and officials say construction could begin as soon as April.
It’s much easier for a telescope to see deep into the universe when it doesn’t have to peer through the Earth’s atmosphere, but getting them into space is expensive. There is a much cheaper solution though, as researchers have actually found a way to make incredibly light mirrors using lasers and polystyrene — aka styrofoam — beads.
For all the futuristic advancements packed into modern space-based telescopes, they all still rely on the same bulky, heavy glass optics that Galileo used centuries ago. But thanks to this DARPA project, future telescopes could eventually use optics as thin as saran wrap to peer into deep space.
Space junk is a serious problem: it threatens satellites and spacecraft, and can plummet unpredictably to earth. Australia’s Murchison Widefield Array is a high-sensitivity radio telescope that tracks space debris as small as one metre across, by observing how the objects reflect FM signals from Australian radio stations. It’s listening to pop music from space.