Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

The Northern Ireland man in charge of world’s biggest telescope

Discovery: Professor Graham identified Fomalhaut B, dubbed one of the greatest ever scientific discoveries

If you have ever wondered just what lies beyond the stars at night - then the answer could rest with a local man who is set to boldly view where no man has ever viewed before.

James R Graham, a world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist, is preparing to head to the very beginning of time using a very special telescope.

While heading up the University of Toronto's Dunlap Institute, Prof Graham’s main focus will be on the launch of the Thirty Metre Telescope, which will be the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth.

Once construction of the $800m (£495m) instrument is completed in Hawaii in 2018, it will allow scientists to view galaxies as they formed at the very edge of the observable universe — close to the beginning of time itself.

The telescope will provide high-sensitivity spatial resolution more than 12 times sharper than the images shown by the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing it to see further and more clearly than existing telescopes.

It will allow astronomers to study objects in our own solar systems as well as stars throughout the Milky Way and its neighbouring galaxies, not to mention images of galaxies forming on the very edge of the observable universe, close to the beginning of time.

Ulster-born James Graham is currently chair of the prestigious Department of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and is known worldwide for his breakthroughs in the fields of infrared astronomy instrumentation and adaptive optics.

Much of his time is spent tracking down new planets across the night sky using direct imaging.

His research has resulted in a list of astronomy firsts — in 1994, he was a member of a team which confirmed the presence of a brown dwarf in the Pleiades open cluster and in 2008 he was part of the team that detected Fomalhaut B — the first exoplanet seen with visible light.

That groundbreaking image of an exoplanet next to one of the brightest stars in the constellation known as the Southern Fish, captured by the Hubble space telescope, was named as one of the 10 biggest ever scientific breakthroughs by Time Magazine.

The chance of capturing images of planets is complicated by the overwhelming brightness of the host star next to the planet — which Prof Graham describes as being like “seeing a firefly next to a searchlight”.

The task is made even harder by the distortions caused by turbulent air movements in the Earth’s atmosphere. Prof Graham says the Thirty Metre Telescope will be one of the major initiatives in astronomy in the coming ten years and a successor to the current generation of large telescopes.

“The scale of modern astronomy projects is such that individual countries can’t build the next generation,” he said.

“One thing the Dunlap Institute can do is understand how to use it.

“We’ll have to design specific instruments to collect and record that information.”

And he added: “It will provide crucial opportunities to educate students in state-of-the-art technologies.”

Prof Graham admits he would like to know whether there is life on other planets.

“It’s a difficult question to answer, so at the moment I’m content with simpler questions, like how common planets are and what is the process that leads to their formation.”

Peter Martin, chair of the University of Toronto’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said: “We are most fortunate to have attracted James Graham as our first director.

“With his outstanding record of astronomic discoveries, innovations in astronomical instrumentation, visionary leadership, strategic thinking and commitment to education and outreach, the Dunlap Institute will be in excellent hands.”

Factfile

The telescope starts construction in Mauna Kea in Hawaii in 2014 and will feature a 30-metre F1 mirror, 492 1.5-metre mirror segments and a 20 arcminute field of view.

It is designed as a powerful complement to the Earth-orbiting James Webb Space Telescope in tracing the evolution of galaxies and the formation of stars and planets.

The 30-meter aperture permits the telescope to focus more sharply than smaller telescopes by using the power of diffraction of light.

TMT will therefore reach further and see more clearly than previous telescopes by a factor of 10 to 100 depending on the observation.

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