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What the World's Best Telescope Can Teach Us


By Stuart Wolpert

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM

“We will be surprised by what we find,” says astronomer James Larkin.


Artist's rendering of the 30-meter telescope

Where did we come from, and why are we here? Are there Earth-like planets around other stars? What is the mysterious dark matter that accounts for most of the matter in the universe?

UCLA and UC have moved a step closer to finding out with the signing of a “master agreement” for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the most powerful and advanced ever built. UCLA researchers will play a major role in the development and research of the TMT.

With the TMT, astronomers will study stars and other objects in our solar system, neighboring galaxies, and the most distant galaxies ever explored.

“One reason we want to build TMT is to delve into the most fundamental workings of our universe,” says Andrea Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy, who holds UCLA ’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Chair in Astrophysics.

Ghez, who leads the development of the Galactic Center Group, says the telescope will identify and map the orbits of fainter stars close to the enormous black hole at the center of our galaxy, extending our knowledge of physics with a fundamental test of Einstein’s theory. The TMT will also increase our ability to measure masses of black holes in more distant galaxies.

UCLA Professor of Astronomy James Larkin is the principal investigator for the Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), one of three scientific instruments that will be used with the TMT. IRIS is like an enormously sophisticated camera that takes small images at 2,000 different wavelengths simultaneously.

“Exploring the universe at this unprecedented resolution and sensitivity means we will be surprised by what we find,” Larkin says. Many of the instrument’s components will be designed and built at UCLA’s Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics, founded by Ian S. McLean, the laboratory’s director and a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy.

Work on the TMT (named for its 30-meter primary mirror) is scheduled to begin in April 2014 atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano. Scientific operations are slated to start in 2022.

Major funding for the project comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; Gordon Moore is co-founder of Intel.