Giant Hawaii telescope to focus on big unknowns of universe

HONOLULU (AP) — Is there life on planets outside our solar system? How did stars and galaxies form in the earliest years of the universe? How do black holes shape galaxies?

Scientists are expected to explore those and other fundamental questions about the universe when they peer deep into the night sky using a new telescope planned for the summit of Hawaii’s tallest mountain.

But the Thirty Meter Telescope is a decade away from being built. And Native Hawaiian protesters have tried to thwart the start of construction by blocking a road to the mountain. They say installing yet another observatory on Mauna Kea’s peak would further defile a place they consider sacred.

Activists have fought the $1.4 billion telescope but the state Supreme Court has ruled it can be built. The latest protests could be the final stand against it.

WHY WOULD THE TELESCOPE BE MORE POWERFUL?

The large size of the telescope’s mirror means it would collect more light, allowing it to see faint, far-away objects such as stars and galaxies dating back as long as 13 billion years.

The telescope gets its name from the size of the mirror, which will be 30 meters (98 feet) in diameter. That’s three times as wide as the world’s largest existing visible-light telescope.

Adaptive optics would correct the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere.

The telescope would be more than 200 times more sensitive than current telescopes and able to resolve objects 12 times better than the Hubble Space Telescope, said Christophe Dumas, head of operations for the Thirty Meter Telescope.

WHAT RESEARCH WOULD THE TELESCOPE DO?

— Distant planets. During the past 20 years, astronomers have discovered it is common for planets to orbit other stars in the universe. But they don’t know much about what those planets — called extrasolar planets or exoplanets — are like. The new telescope would allow scientists to determine whether their atmospheres contain water vapor or methane which might indicate the presence of life.

“For the first time in history we will be capable of detecting extraterrestrial life,” Dumas said.

Dumas said the new telescope would use special optics to suppress the light of stars. He compared the technique to blocking a bright street light in the distance with your thumb then seeing insects circling in the fainter light below.

— Black holes. Black holes at the center of most galaxies are so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull.