Dr Vanessa Moss currently spends her days sleeping and her nights working on one of Australia’s most powerful radio telescopes – the Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) in Murchison, WA.
The telescope, which when opened was able to map around three million galaxies in just 300 hours. Comparable surveys of the sky have taken up to 10 years. ASKAP was able to track fast radio bursts, find new pulsars, and discover strange new space objects. One of the programs that is part of ASKAP studies galaxies three billion years ago.
But what would an astronomer like Moss do if he had access to an even more powerful telescope?
“ASKAP is powerful in the sense that it uses new technology – phased array power supplies – to open up our view of the sky,” says Moss.
“And you know, it has a lot of impact because of that because he can look at the universe in a different way.”
As exciting and powerful as ASKAP is, there are always ways to go further and better.
Optical telescopes – like Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope – are already in orbit. Could radio telescopes also fly away?
“One of the places that astronomers have talked about is the far side of the Moon, so you’d still be facing Earth,” Moss says.
“There are discussions about – if you could build a [radio] telescope on the Moon, what would you do there? »
Of course, this is all hypothetical, but it would allow astronomers to get away from radio frequency interference from things like satellites or Wi-Fi and give them a wider range of radio frequencies to explore.
The far side of the Moon sounds exciting, but what about the size? Moss explains that Tianyan, the The Five Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China reaches the maximum size for this type of telescope before the physics start to get messy.
“FAST in China was super ambitious. It’s probably about as big physically as you can get a single dish sitting in a valley,” she told Cosmos.
“You start to be affected by physics.”
Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all (large)” when it comes to astrophysics questions. Some questions require certain telescopes to answer them, and an immensely “powerful” telescope in some ways may not be so good in others.
For example, if you were looking to answer questions about primordial hydrogen in the early universe, you need a radio telescope capable of measuring long wavelengths at around 100 megahertz. A telescope like ASKAP (with its frequency range of 700 MHz to 1.8 GHz) would not be useful for this job. While a telescope currently under construction in the same area of WA called the SKA-low, which can receive signals from 50 to 350 MHz, would be perfect.
However, without building new telescopes, astronomers around the world can extract much more from their data.
“I think one of the underutilized possibilities right now is that we have so much data from telescopes everywhere – optical, radio, infrared, x-ray. And if we’re generally trying to answer specific science questions with them , a lot of other things in the data are noise,” says Moss.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity… Code, or machine learning, or intelligence that can look at all the data, already then try to find those outliers.
Perhaps the most powerful hypothetical telescope has been with us forever.
Would You Rather is a new series from the Cosmos news team where two of our science journalists answer the world’s dumbest questions scientifically. This week, the team asked, “Would you rather have access to the most powerful telescope or the most powerful microscope?” You can listen below.
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