Modern technology enables scientists to study even the most distant corners of space directly from Earth. We made a selection of modern observatories where astronauts look at exoplanets, black holes and extinct stars
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Since 1990, scientists have been able to confirm that there are over 4,000 planets outside our solar system. To study outer space, researchers are building powerful observatories with entrepreneurs, scientific universities and philanthropists around the world. In this material, we have collected modern observatories, told where the largest telescope is and why Chinese researchers moved an entire village.
Photo: WM Keck Observatory
The Keck Observatory is part of the WM Keck Foundation, founded in 1954 by entrepreneur and philanthropist William Keck, who supported scientific, engineering and medical research. The observatory is located on top of Mauna Kea (Hawaii Island) at an altitude of 4,145 m above sea level. It is equipped with two eight-story telescopes that detect targets with nanometer precision. Telescopes can track objects for hours. Each of them weighs 300 tons, and the mirrors consist of 36 hexagonal segments.
Until 2007 and the advent of the Great Canary Telescope in Spain, the Keck Telescope was considered the largest in the world. They find planets by working according to the principle of the Doppler effect – by measuring changes in starlight. Thanks to these telescopes, researchers at the observatory have discovered the largest number of exoplanets, including the youngest LkCa 15 b.
Astronomers at the Keck Observatory are the first in history to image a planetary system in orbit around a star other than the sun. In 2017, NASA entered into a five-year agreement (valid from 2018 to 2023) with the owners of the observatory to jointly explore space. Prior to that, Keck scientists helped NASA carry out the Kepler / K2 mission by providing high-resolution photographs to verify and describe the existence of hundreds of exoplanet orbits. And with the help of the observatory’s telescope, it was possible to detect the first signs of water vapor on one of Jupiter’s 79 moons. NASA scientists confirmed this in 2019.
Water vapor on Jupiter’s moon Europe
South African Astronomical Observatory
Photo: South African Astronomical Observatory
The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) is located in Cape Town. This is one of the most modern areas for the study of outer space. The observatory is controlled by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Almost all telescopes are located away from the main research center – in Sutherland.
There are four large modern telescopes on the observatory’s territory, including SALT and Lesedi.
In October 2017, SAAO was part of 70 scientific observatories that investigated the explosion of two colliding neutron stars immediately after the impact of a gravitational wave was discovered by the US LIGO observatory and the European Virgo antenna.
LIGO Laser Observatory
The world’s largest laser and wave observatory, LIGO, became known only in 2016 after researchers working on it managed to detect a powerful gravitational wave caused by the collision between two black holes, which proved the presence of gravitational waves. LIGO includes the Hanford and Livingston Observatories. The project is funded by the US National Science Foundation.
The observatory has brought together scientists from all over the world: they observe cosmic gravitational waves, which were predicted as early as 1916 by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Photo: European Southern Observatory
The Paranal Observatory opened in 1999 in Chile. It is part of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) complex, one of the oldest astronomical research organizations.
Here you can see the observatory per year:
The observatory is located in the Atacama Desert at an altitude of 2,635 meters above sea level, which corresponds to the height of eight Eiffel Towers. It is equipped with several telescopes, including one of the most powerful optical instruments for observing space, the Very Large Telescope. It consists of four telescopes with mirrors with a diameter of 8.2 m and four moving auxiliary telescopes with a diameter of 1.8 m. Together they create an interferometer that separates rays of electromagnetic light radiation. With a telescope, you can get images of celestial objects with 30 magnitudes in one hour of observation, which corresponds to the view of objects that are 4 billion times darker than what the human eye can see.
This telescope has already made a major contribution to the study of outer space. With it it was possible to get the first images of exoplanets, track the movement of stars around a black hole and in 2005 see the reflection of the most distant known gamma radiation.
The observatory also has a home for astronomers working at the station. Inside there is a huge garden with pool, gym and restaurant. There even took place the filming of one of the James Bond movies – “Quantum of Solace”.
On the website of the European Southern Observatory you can go on a virtual tour of the territory with huge telescopes.
Heavenly Eye in China
Photo: Ou Dongqu / Xinhua / ZUMA
The FAST spherical telescope is one of the latest space exploration instruments. This is a joint project of the National Astronomical Observatory of China (NAOC) and the Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner’s breakthrough initiative. The concept for the radio telescope began to be developed as early as 1994, and it was not possible to build and launch it until 2016.
The search for a suitable site for the construction took ten years, as the construction needed an area that resembled a natural crater. The Chinese government has moved 65 residents of a village in the Dawodang Depression in Guizhou Province and another 9,110 people within a five-kilometer radius of the telescope’s site to clear the space and create a radio silence zone.
The telescope is half a kilometer in diameter (about 30 football pitches) and 140 meters deep. It consists of 4,450 small moving triangular panels that allow observations to be made from different angles. During operation, the telescope “captures” radio waves emitted by objects in outer space. Due to its size, FAST can collect signals from distant parts of space. The researchers say that during a test run, the telescope detected radio waves from three rapidly rotating stars.
The developers are convinced that the telescope can help search for gravitational waves and explore the volatile sound bursts of dead stars. As early as August 2021, FAST will be a research platform for astronomers from around the world.
Roque de los Muchachos observatory
Photo: Stars Island La Palma
The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory is located in the Canary Islands at 2,396 meters above sea level. It is run by the Canarian Institute of Astrophysics, located nearby on the island of Tenerife. There is also the Teide Observatory, from where some of the research was transferred to Roque de los Muchachos.
In the territory of the observatory is one of the largest collections of telescopes from around the world. There is also the largest telescope on the planet – the Large Canary Telescope. Its mirrors reach 10.4 m and can capture even the faint light from distant space objects.