One afternoon early last October, I found myself at the base of Hawaii’s tallest volcano, about to begin a journey toward the nearly 14,000-foot peak where the world’s largest and most powerful telescope is being built.
The peak of Mauna Kea, a (thankfully) dormant volcano on the Big Island, is in fact so far above sea level that the only thing able to live up there is a rare bug that counts on the bodies of other dead bugs blown to the top for its food. Humans traveling to the top need to stop midway through their journey to adapt to the drop in pressure.
But its height and distance from any large, light-emitting cities make this the greatest place in the world for stargazing. And that’s why we came here. The telescope, named for its 30-meter primary mirror, is a joint initiative of UC, Caltech and several nations. Not only will UCLA be using the Thirty Meter Telescope, but several key components were designed here on campus by our faculty. Those features will allow astronomers using the telescope to see further and deeper into the universe than ever before, studying stars and objects throughout our solar system, the Milky Way and neighboring galaxies, as well as new galaxies forming at the edge of the observable universe.
Physics and Astronomy Professor Andrea Ghez, who has helped shepherd this project through for more than a decade, said it was the telescopes that brought her to UCLA 21 years ago. Back then, the first of two telescopes at W.M. Keck Observatory, also on Mauna Kea, had just come online with a 10-meter mirror — making it still one of the most powerful in the world today. Another would follow three years later.
Keck was largely designed by UC faculty. At the time, UCLA astronomers in particular were among the first to truly recognize the importance of infrared technology, which, by displaying heat, allows astronomers to see through the space dust that usually forms around things like stars that are either dying or being born.
UC also led the way in the design of the massive mirror on Keck, which is made up of 36 interlocking hexagonal mirrors. The mirror for the new telescope is three times the size of Keck — equivalent to a baseball diamond and made up of 492 smaller hexagons, which, according to Ghez, are easier to polish.
A $1-billion project, the Thirty Meter Telescope will be housed inside one of the largest moving structures ever built on Earth, crafted by architects and engineers who design sports arenas. The structure itself will be built by construction crews wearing oxygen masks — necessary given the extreme altitude atop Mauna Kea.
Once the telescope becomes operational, projected to be in 2024, we will be able to operate the Thirty Meter Telescope from right here in Westwood, giving our researchers and students access to the most powerful eye ever cast toward the sky — one producing images three times sharper than those from the Keck telescopes.
The types of innovations that make the Thirty Meter Telescope possible “truly represent UCLA,” Ghez said recently. “There’s really strategic thinking here about how you crack open scientific problems.”
Risk taking, of course, is how we make discoveries. When we take that leap together, realizing the sum is greater than the parts, that’s when we achieve greatness.
At UCLA, we’ve been talking a lot about breaking barriers, challenging the status quo and harnessing the power of optimism lately. The Thirty Meter Telescope is just the kind of fiercely awesome project that epitomizes this spirit.
I applaud everyone at UCLA and UC who has contributed to this astounding project. This is truly a remarkable moment for Bruins everywhere, and I can only imagine what’s to come in the future.