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Monday, October 18, 2021

Seeing beyond

Telescopes allow us to see many cool and interesting things, but how exactly do they work? There are many types of telescopes, each useful for different types of astronomers.

Researchers at UC Irvine recently utilized one of these telescopes, the Herschel Space Observatory, to locate five new galaxies. The Herschel Space Observatory, a telescope in space operated by the European Space Agency, is positioned well enough to allow for cosmic magnification – also known as gravitational lensing.

Cosmic magnification, or gravitational lensing, is a process where near and distant galaxies align to allow for better viewing. Light traveling from the far galaxy bends around the near galaxy, creating a warped image that makes viewing stars far away much easier. Imagine looking at an object through the distortion of a glass bottle, what you see is very similar to what astronomers are seeing in space – a concept first explored by Albert Einstein.

“If something can look at a spectral region that hasn’t been looked at before, then that’s very good,” said Warren Pickett, chair of the physics department at UC Davis.

Pickett said that the Herschel Space Observatory – first launched into orbit in 2009 – is very good at detecting long wavelengths. It can pick up light scattered from dust in cold, dark parts of the universe.

Lloyd Knox, physics professor at UC Davis, is doing some similar research with land-based telescopes. He is using a telescope in the South Pole that detects slightly longer wavelengths than Herschel. It allows him and his co-researchers to detect similar far off galaxies, much like the UC Irvine research.

He said that throughout the course of his research of measuring the electronic currents going through pieces of metal in space, he has also experimented with gravitational lensing.

“We have found many new galaxies due to the brightness revealed through gravitational lensing,” Knox said. “We have had these lensing systems for at least a year.”

Anthony Tyson, physics professor at UC Davis, said that much of the technology behind these telescopes is based around light detectors.

“Detectors understand the physics of light and photons, thus converting light into something that can count,” Tyson said.

These detectors are one of the primary areas of focus when it comes to development of new technologies as a result of the large influx of data received by these detectors.

“It’s amazing how much technology has progressed over the last 10 years; its progression is similar to those of computer parts,” said Adam Kreger, a UC Davis alumnus who provides telescope support for the astronomy club at UC Davis.

Kreger said that telescopes like Herschel – or the “big mirror in space” as he called it – are great and that he is especially looking forward to the James Webb telescope in 2013, the successor to the Hubble telescope.

In terms of telescopes, the UC system is also making strides to have a telescope of their own. University of California Observatories, in collaboration with Keck observatories, is developing TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope). This telescope – currently being built in Hawaii – is thought to cost a little over a billion dollars, and it could potentially be the biggest advancement in telescopic technology since the Hubble telescope.

ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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