Hawaii’s isolated position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also means the area is relatively free of air pollution. Few cities on the Big Island mean there aren’t a lot of man-made lights around to disrupt observations. Hence Hawaii was chosen on Tuesday as the site for the world’s biggest telescope, a device so powerful that it will allow scientists to see some 13 billion light years away and get a glimpse into the early years of the universe.
The telescope’s mirror stretching almost 100 feet in diameter, or nearly the length of a Boeing 737’s wingspan will be so large that it should be able to gather light that will have spent 13 billion years traveling to earth. This means astronomers looking into the telescope will be able to see images of the first stars and galaxies forming some 400 million years after the Big Bang.
Native Hawaiian tradition holds that high altitudes are sacred and are a gateway to heaven. In the past only high chiefs and priests were allowed at Mauna Kea’s summit. The mountain is home to one confirmed burial site and perhaps four more, and environmentalists oppose the telescope on the grounds it would hurt some endangered species.
Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. spokesman Charles Blue said that It will sort of give us the history of the universe. The telescope is expected to be completed by 2018, will be located atop a dormant volcano that is popular with astronomers because its summit sits well above the clouds at 13,796 feet, offering a clear view of the sky above for 300 days a year.
The telescope will be built by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.
The current world’s largest telescopes also are located atop Mauna Kea, but the size of their diameters is about three times smaller than the Thirty Meter Telescope. Current telescopes also don’t routinely offer views of hundreds of planets orbiting around other stars and stars that are near the sun like the new telescope will.
A partnership of European countries plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, which would have an 138-foot mirror. The group is considering sites in Argentina, Chile, Morocco and Spain. It plans to decide on a location next year and be able to host its first observation in 2018. Another group of universities plans to finish the Giant Magellan Telescope, also around 2018, with an 80-foot mirror in Las Campanas, Chile.