The Future of Telescopes: The Square Kilometre Array & The James Webb Space Telescope

Telescopes have been one of the essential instruments of human discovery - they function as an extension of the mind - a way for us to try and understand our universe. But how do they work? Telescopes allow us to view distant objects by collecting electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic radiation is energy that travels through space, spreading out as it goes - the visible light that comes out of your desk lamp or the radio waves you hear on the radio - it’s all electromagnetic radiation. Particles called photons travel in a wave-like pattern and different types of photons have different amounts of energy. A radio wave is low energy, around the middle is what we can see, visible light, to gamma rays - the most energetic of them all.

To help us paint a more comprehensive view of our universe, we’ve created telescopes that detect not only in the visible light portion of the spectrum, but outside it. In this episode we are going to talk about two future telescopes that sit outside of visible light. The Square Kilometer Array - a radio telescope - and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is infrared. They hope to answer questions like, what is dark energy? How do galaxies evolve? and is there water in the atmosphere of earth-like planets?

We start at the radio end of the spectrum - my first guest is Phil Diamond - the director general of the Square Kilometre Array Project. They are building a radio telescope that will be 50 times more sensitive than any radio telescopes in use today - the data collected in a single day would take nearly two million years to playback on your ipod.

The next telescope moves us from the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to infrared. Alberto Conti is an astrophysicist and the innovation manager at Northrop Grumman, who is building the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble and the Spitzer. JWST is a transformer-like telescope that will be the size of a tennis court. It will unfold over a months time as it travels to it’s home a million miles away from Earth. You can see video of the deployment at here.

Many have asked, including members of Congress, why spend billions of dollars to build a telescope? These telescopes will not only answer fundamental questions about our universe, but we also get great technology from it. It’s pushing supercomputer innovation. It’s thanks to research in radio telescopes that we have wifi - the research done on the mirrors in JWST is affecting medicine. I cannot wait to see what insights we gain when these telescopes come online and what questions we’ll be asking next.


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