Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

The Terrascope: A Large Space Telescope That Would Use the Earth’s Atmosphere as a Lens

Aug 12, 2019 06:13 AM EDT


Telescopes only keep getting bigger now with the increasing need for it in researches.  The thirty meter telescope, or the TMT, alone is representation enough.  But is it large enough?

Columbia University astronomer David Kipping, also known as "the moon guy" for his interest on the moons of distant planets orbiting distant stars as he was going through data from the Kepler space telescope, believes that no idea is too crazy.  The astronomer proposes to use the Earth's atmosphere to bend and focus light, making it a telescope lens.  The concept came from the fact that when light rays from stars hit the Earth's atmosphere, the light refracts.  This bending action would concentrate the light rays, allowing them to be focused at the opposite side of the planet. 

In an issue of Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Kipping says that if you put a spacecraft in the correct spot, it would be able to catch the focused light rays.  He also believes that instruments equipped aboard the said spacecraft would be able to collect more light than those telescopes that we currently have now.  Therefore, these instruments would be able to make ultrasensitive measurements, which would then pave way for the discovery of features, like mountain ranges or clouds that we do not know about some exoplanets.

As this is of course, one of Kipping's high risk ideas, some other scientists are questioning his idea.  NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory astrophysicist Slava Turyshev deems the proposal as infeasible due to a number of reasons, including but not limited to the procedure on how to block unwanted light and how to take clear images as light entering the atmosphere at different heights might cause some blurriness.  These and some other factors must be taken into consideration when working on such a big project.

On the other hand, some others are more optimistic about the proposal.  Dr. Martin Elvis, as astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says that there is still a lot of work to do before they can say that it is going to work.  "Even if this neat idea doesn't pan out," he says, "this is the kind of creative thinking that will get astronomy out of the linear thinking trap of wanting a bigger version of what we already have." 

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