Eric Bell, associate chair of astronomy at LSA, waxes poetic about the vastness of space and human beings’ place in all of it.
“I just want students to fall in love with the Universe. The ‘what is.’ I want them to see how precious Earth and the life that inhabits it is. There might not be any other planet out there as great as this one. And if that’s true, how did we get so lucky?” says Bell. “We could be all alone out here in this extraordinary Universe, the majority of which no one has ever seen before.”
Or, perhaps, we are not alone, and life could be found on other Earth-like planets. Whatever the case may be—the solitude and grandeur of human life existing only on Earth or the mind-bending possibility of counterparts somewhere in the Universe; exoplanets, galaxies, and black holes; new knowledge about how stars were formed and the evolution of the first galaxies—all feels more within reach than ever.
The new lens through which we will see our world and others is the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT)—the largest optical telescope ever built. U-M is the only academic institution in the United States working on building this window to the Universe, in partnership with European Southern Observatory (ESO) and its member states. The telescope, located in Chile, will capture high-resolution images of the deep universe that have never been seen.
“We want to be a part of something that changes everything,” says Ted Bergin, chair of astronomy.
The ELT will have the capacity to facilitate revolutionary discoveries in many branches of astrophysics, from the detection of the first stars and galaxies that ever existed, to understanding how black holes and the Sun were formed, and, possibly for the first time, the possibility that life on other planets really does exist outside our Solar System.
The ELT’s size is unparalleled; the main mirror, for instance, is nearly 128 feet across. The ELT will be equipped with six innovative instruments that make such grand discoveries possible. According to ESO, the ELT, which has been a dream for astronomers around the globe since 1998, could shift our perception of the Universe to the same degree that Galileo’s telescope did 400 years ago.
“I think it’s difficult to truly describe the size of this telescope and how historic the scientific achievement could be,” Bergin says. “NASA’s James Webb telescope is extraordinary; it’s the first time in the history of humanity we’ve been able to see cosmic objects with this kind of clarity. The size of that telescope is 6.5 meters. The ELT is nearly 40 meters, and it will gather 100 million times more light than the human eye.”
Put another way, the ELT will have the capacity to solve some of the most complicated puzzles in astrophysics, like understanding the life cycles of different types of stars. The ELT will make it possible to study star-forming regions of the Universe at distances 10 times greater than has ever been possible.
From formation to evolution and eventual death, understanding the life cycle of stars is critical to answering fundamental questions about how the Universe has evolved over time.
After receiving approximately 90 percent of the budget for the first phase of the project, the ESO Council voted to start construction in 2014 and began building the ELT at Cerro Armazones in Chile’s Atacama Desert.
More recently, ESO initiated a policy in which non-member states could contribute to building instruments for the telescope. U-M was able to make a bold move at the right time, offering a $17 million investment, says Michael Meyer, professor of astronomy and a department ELT committee member. This early investment satisfied many of ESO’s needs for external contribution to the project.
U-M is tasked with helping build four of the six telescope instruments: HARMONI, METIS, MOSAIC, and ANDES. This opportunity grants LSA’s Astronomy Department privileges to use those instruments in collaboration with international partners for hundreds of nights over several years, in an effort to help make field-altering breakthroughs.
“It’s exciting that members of our department and, in particular, early-career scientists, will be able to lead some of these discoveries,” says Meyer, who became interested in extremely large telescopes in 2003 and arrived at the University of Michigan in 2016 after spending time at the University of Arizona and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Switzerland. “I’m thrilled that our institution can play an important part in this unfolding story of discovery.”
Meyer is one of four ELT committee members coordinating LSA involvement in each of the four instruments, working alongside astronomy professors Elena Gallo, Mario Mateo, and Chris Miller. Others, like research professors Ian Roederer and Jiangtao Li, help coordinate working groups within each instrument team.
The four telescope instruments that U-M is involved with building are HARMONI, METIS, MOSAIC, and ANDES. (See infographic below.)
Sally Oey, a professor of astronomy and an ELT committee member coordinating a plan for the department’s overall scientific involvement, is most closely involved with the construction of MOSAIC due to her interest in how the first galaxies were created.
“This is the holy grail of astronomy. We’ve had our hands tied because the field of study requires being able to collect data in the form of light from the Universe, and we can’t send spacecraft out there to go get that data. It would take billions of years to get to the nearest galaxies,” she says.
Li, who is involved in work on both MOSAIC and ANDES, says the opportunity for such observations seemed like the most far-fetched dream eight years ago when he came to U-M from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.
“When I was a kid, I wanted my own big toy to make observations with. Now, in a few years, it’ll be real. A dream that becomes reality,” he says. “I was born in the 1980s, and we didn’t know what the Universe looked like then. Soon, we might know. I can’t believe it.”
A Lego model of the telescope sits in a glass case outside Li’s office—a project that Department of Astronomy faculty, staff, and students completed over more than 60 hours.
“It’s a reminder of this dream that so many in the department share with me,” Li says.
The University’s investment in the ELT helps the Department of Astronomy further solidify its position as a world leader. More importantly to these faculty members, though, are the unique research opportunities that will be provided to students in the next decade and beyond because of the discoveries made.
In the same way access to a telescope of this magnitude enhances faculty research opportunities, the quantity and quality of data sets the ELT will garner as early as 2027 creates unparalleled experiences for students interested in understanding exoplanets, gas around galaxies, star formation, and more. Additionally, the preferential access to data connects students with some of the world’s best astronomers.
“Building the next generation of anything reveals unexpected things, and those unexpected things could change everything. It’s exciting. That’s how dark energy was first discovered; the Universe was found to be nearly 75 percent of something no one even knew existed,” says Oey. “We’re opening new windows on the Universe.”
It’s likely that students now pursuing their undergraduate degrees will be some of the first researchers to ever view space through the largest telescope in the world by the time they are pursuing their doctoral degrees or becoming postdoctoral scholars.
“Our department has a strong record of involving students in our work with the telescopes we use,” says Li. “Graduate students in particular help us create different scientific products and even serve as principal investigators and lead papers.”
Bell adds that “important discoveries will be made here, and our students can be the people leading those discoveries that might become some of the most momentous findings of our lifetime.”
Although the influence of the ELT on the undergraduate experience is less direct, the committee is eager to see how a greater understanding of the Universe bleeds into the classroom environment and other educational efforts to give students a more robust understanding of the field.
Understanding where the field of astronomy is going and what the major science priorities will be permits students who might be interested in participating in research to position themselves to take advantage of those opportunities and become future leaders in the field.
“Dreams are about being unlimited. You don’t let regular constraints limit you,” says Oey. “I hope us chasing this dream of the ELT inspires our students to chase their own dreams or feel encouraged to follow a new dream that might arise from what we see through that telescope.”
It’s not a guarantee that LSA’s astronomers will discover places outside this galaxy where carbon-based lifeforms could exist, but they continue to get closer and closer.
“I have theories about what these worlds look like, where life could exist,” says Bergin, whose work for the last 10 years has been centered on how planets are born and where life could exist on other Earth-like planets. “There are methane lakes on Titan and a history of water on Mars, and those are right in our Solar System. There must be life out there. They don’t look like our fanciful view of green Martians, of course; they are most likely microbes. But I think it’s highly likely we aren’t alone. I can’t wait to find out.”
Learn about supporting the Department of Astronomy
A look at the ELT’s structure, focusing particularly on the first generation of instruments. U-M’s contributions will grant the Astronomy Department the privilege of using the instruments.
HARMONI, or High Angular Resolution Monolithic Optical and Near-infrared Integral Field Spectrograph, is a device that disperses light into its wavelengths over a 2D image of the sky and will transform the visible and near-infrared space landscape to allow astronomers to measure black hole masses and understand diverse galaxy populations, like the Virgo Cluster, which contains more than 1,300 galaxies and whose center is approximately 54 million light years away.
METIS, or Mid-infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph, will allow astronomers to investigate the formation as well as basic physical and chemical properties of exoplanets, like their orbital parameters, temperature, luminosity, composition, and dynamics in their atmospheres. Additionally, METIS will be responsible for helping astronomers detail the center of the Milky Way and how stars have evolved over time.
MOSAIC, or Multi-Object Spectrograph, will conduct the first, exhaustive inventory of the early Universe’s matter. The instrument will enable astronomers to trace the growth of galaxies and the distribution of matter from the Big Bang to the present day.
ANDES, or ArmazoNes high Dispersion Echelle Spectrograph, will allow astronomers to study space objects that require high spectral resolution, which refers to the fineness with which different wavelengths can be distinguished. High spectral resolution is needed to precisely measure the speed of objects and offer detailed compositional information. This instrument will be directly responsible for searching for signs of life on Earth-like exoplanets, finding the first stars born in the Universe, testing for possible variations of the fundamental constants of physics, and measuring the acceleration of the Universe’s expansion.
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