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TMT: Keeping an eye on the universe


September 20, 2009
by Corinne Lynds, Senior Editor

Astronomers will soon have a powerful new instrument to help them unlock the mysteries of the universe. The world’s largest telescope—roughly the same size as a hockey arena, 22 storeys high and weighing in at 2,000 tons—will be built in BC and is destined for either Chile or Hawaii.

The officially dubbed “Thirty Metre Telescope” (TMT) project is led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Associated Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA). But it will be designed and manufactured by Dynamic Structures Ltd., a Coquitlam, BC structural fabricator, at steel shops in the Vancouver area and then transported to Cerro Armazones, Chile or Mauna Kea, Hawaii, where weather and light conditions are best for deep-space stargazing.

“The TMT will be the largest telescope ever built,” says Dynamic Structure’s Craig Breckenridge, who is supervising the team creating the drawings and models during the design phase. “The world’s [current] largest telescope is only 10 metres in diameter, making the TMT much larger and more ambitious than anything ever constructed before.”

The Thirty Metre Telescope will give scientists the clearest view yet into dark energy, the formation of galaxies, black holes and the origins of stars and planets.
Photo: Dynamic Structures

The core technology will be a 492-segment, 30-metre primary mirror capable of providing up to 10 times the magnification of existing ground-based telescopes. When the TMT is complete astronomers will have the clearest and most far-reaching views yet of the universe.

An instrument of such size and scope will probe dark energy and matter, the formation of galaxies, black holes and the origins of stars and planets, says Scott Roberts, the Canadian project manager.

The project includes significant contributions from Canadian scientists who developed cameras, spectrometers and other instruments going into the telescope. For example, a planet-formation imager will search for planets around other stars and an adaptive optics system, designed at the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute, will remove disturbances in the image caused by the Earth’s atmosphere.

If all goes according to plan and the $990-million project attracts enough financial support from government, research and business sources, scientists will be taking their first peek at the great beyond by 2018.