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B.C. astronomer praises telescope funding

By David La Riviere

An artist concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated.
(Photo submitted)

An artist concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope at night, with the laser guide star system illuminated. (Photo submitted)

A University of B.C. astronomy professor is one of the minds leading the development of the world’s most powerful telescope.

UBC’s Paul Hickson has been involved with the development process of the Thirty Meter Telescope since Canadian academics first joined the project around a decade ago. Canada was the first country to join the U.S. on the project, but only started providing government funding this week, pledging $243.5 million over 10 years. The telescope being built in Hawaii is estimated to cost US $1.5 billion.

“We’re all really happy that Canada is going to participate in this, it’s really an investment in the future,” Hickson said.

Hickson has acted as both chair of the TMT science advisory committee and as project scientist for the telescope’s adaptive optics system. Because of this system and the sheer size of the primary mirror, the 22-storey telescope aims to produce sharper images than the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The larger the telescope you use the sharper, in principle, you can make that image,” Hickson said. “If you have a big telescope on the Earth, larger than one in space then, with adaptive optics, you can actually get sharper images than you would with a space-based telescope.”

The adaptive optics system uses lasers to correct light waves that have been distorted after passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Hickson, the result is an image 100 times clearer.

Dynamic Structures, a Port Coquitlam-based company that has been involved in the development of some of the world’s largest observatories, is designing a few of the telescope’s key components including the telescope enclosure.

“It’s got a unique dome design that is very streamlined and smaller in size for the size of the telescope,” Hickson said.

“The design is being developed here in detail and it’s pretty much ready to build now.”

When the observatory is complete, astronomers will be able to study everything up to the edge of the observable universe, including some of the first stars.

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