Big eye on task to search for other star folk - the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST). An artist’s concept of the ATLAST telescope under construction in space. This design has a segmented mirror 20 metres across.  Credit: NASA/STScI.

Big eye on task to search for other star folk – the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST). An artist’s concept of the ATLAST telescope under construction in space. This design has a segmented mirror 20 metres across.
Credit: NASA/STScI.

Think big – that’s the astronomical and technical view of Martin Barstow of the University of Leicester in England.

Barstow is giving a talk at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) in Portsmouth, England on June 24, set to call for governments and space agencies around the world to back the Advanced Technologies Large Aperture Space Telescope, or ATLAST for short.

The Royal Astronomical Society’s NAM is being held at the University of Portsmouth – one of the largest professional astronomy conferences in Europe.

ATLAST is an instrument that would give scientists a good chance of detecting hints of life on planets around other stars.

The plan

Make note that ATLAST is currently a concept. It’s under development in the United States and Europe.

Here’s the plan: Scientists and engineers envisage a telescope with a mirror as large as 20 meters (65.6 feet) across that, like the Hubble Space Telescope, would detect visible light and also operate from the far-ultraviolet to the infrared parts of the spectrum.

ATLAST would be capable of analyzing the light from planets the size of the Earth in orbit around other nearby stars, searching for features in their spectra such as molecular oxygen, ozone, water and methane that could suggest the presence of life. It might also be able to see how the surfaces of planets change with the seasons.

Details! Challenges ahead

But way before ATLAST goes prime time, perhaps around 2030, there are details!

Before this can happen, there are technical challenges to overcome such as enhancing the sensitivities of detectors and increasing the efficiencies of the coatings on the mirror segments.

Such a large structure may also need to be assembled in space before deployment rather than launching on a single rocket. All of this means that a decision to construct the telescope needs to happen soon for it to proceed.

ATLAST advocate, Barstow, is the President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and is supportive of the project in a personal capacity.

Ambitious but extraordinary

Barstow sees ATLAST as an ambitious but extraordinary project.

He argues that, since antiquity human beings have wondered whether we really are alone in the universe or whether there are other oases of life. This question is one of the fundamental goals of modern science and ATLAST could finally allow us to answer it.

 “The time is right for scientific and space agencies around the world, including those in the United Kingdom, to take a bold step forward and to commit to this project,” Barstow said in a RAS press statement.

 

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