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Here’s what next-gen Event Horizon Telescope will be able to do

Telescopes have really evolved in just over four centuries! Back in 1608, Hans Lippershey, a Dutch guy who supposedly had nearsightedness, stumbled upon the magnifying abilities of lenses when experimenting with them.

Fast forward to today, and we’ve got a bunch of telescope types, including ones floating in space. But the most mind-blowing one has to be the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Last year, it gave us a peek at the supermassive black hole in the heart of our galaxy and around M87. Now, a group of astronomers is kicking it up a notch with the potential of an even more badass system—the Next Generation EHT (ngEHT).

No doubt, we’ve made huge strides in grasping the workings of our universe since the telescope came into play. The clarity of these cosmic detectives depends on the size of the telescope’s opening.

Also Read: Saturn to lose its rings in 2025 only to get them back

Figuring out black holes is imperative

Interferometry is a trick that links up separate telescopes, merges their signals, and turns them into one giant telescope, cranking up the resolution.

Telescopes like the EHT have been rocking interferometry to dig deep into black hole mysteries. These puzzling stellar remnants give us a hard time; we’re still in the dark about where they come from and how they work. Plus, our laws of physics start acting up when you get too close to the heart of the action—the singularity.

If we can figure out the ins and outs of black holes, which mess around with space and time, it might just open the door to unraveling the mysteries of the entire universe. Before, all we could see from observations were stars zipping around the galactic center, hinting that something hefty—about 4 million times the Sun’s mass—was hanging out there.

Untangling the physics of black holes

The EHT’s data from 2022 spilled the beans, unveiling a snapshot of the main player at the center—SgrA*, a massive black hole, along with the stuff hanging out right around the event horizon. Even though this image didn’t spill all the beans about the black hole itself, it definitely showed us some unmistakable hints.

There’s this fresh paper out that dives into what the ngEHT could do and how it might help us untangle the physics of black holes. The ngEHT plans to expand the EHT’s reach by adding 10 more instruments scattered across the globe.

With a major bump in resolution, the ngEHT is set to level up image dynamics, rock a multi-wavelength skill, and make long-term monitoring a piece of cake.

NASA working on Deformable Mirror technology

So, we’re diving into exoplanet research, and here’s the cool part: future telescopes are gearing up to spy on them directly. They’ve got nifty gadgets like coronographs and self-adjusting smart mirrors. With this gear, astronomers can snag spectra right from the atmospheres of these exoplanets, helping them suss out if these places could be comfy enough for life.

NASA is on a mission to amp up its adaptive optics game with the Deformable Mirror Technology project. Going down at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, it’s got the nod from NASA’s Astrophysics Division Strategic Astrophysics Technology (SAT) and the NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs.

So, the folks leading the charge on the DM Technology Roadmap working group are Dr. Eduardo Bendek from JPL and Dr. Tyler Groff from NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center (GSFC). They’ve got some backup in the form of Paul Bierden, the big shot over at Boston Micromachines (BMC), and Kevin King, the Program Manager at Adaptive Optics Associates (AOX).

The exploration of exoplanets has skyrocketed recently, with a whopping 5,539 confirmed candidates in 4,129 systems and another 10,000 in the wings. Identifying habitable planets in this vast pool is crucial for tackling the big question: are we alone in the Universe? With improved tools, savvy data analysis, and better information sharing, the goal is transitioning from merely discovering exoplanets to truly comprehending them. However, up until now, most exoplanets have been uncovered using indirect methods.

Also Read: Galaxies like Milky Way might be rare in our cosmic neighborhood

How will these Deformable Mirrors work?

Deformable Mirrors (DM) do their thing by employing controlled actuators—picture them as tiny power tools—to fine-tune the shape of a reflective mirror. When it comes to telescopes on Earth, these DMs step in to straighten out the path of incoming light, smoothing over problems like atmospheric turbulence or misalignments in the telescope. In space, DMs don’t have to contend with Earth’s atmosphere, but they do need to tackle the minor optical glitches that arise as the space telescope and its gear heat up and cool down in orbit.

Down here on Earth, deformable mirrors have been put through the wringer and are delivering stellar performance. However, when it comes to space-ready deformable mirrors for upcoming missions, we’ve got some work to do. Two key technologies are in the spotlight for space endeavors: electrostrictive tech and electrostatically-driven Micro-Electro Mechanical-Systems (MEMS). In the first one, actuators are connected to the deformable mirrors and contract to adjust the mirror’s surface when volts enter the scene. The second one involves giving mirror surfaces a makeover through an electrostatic force between an electrode and the mirror.

NASA-backed squads are charging forward with deformable mirror (DM) technology, and they’ve got some heavyweights on their team, including MEMS DMs from Boston Micromachines Corporation (BMC) and Electrostrictive DMs from AOA Xinetics (AOX). BMC’s mirrors have gone through rigorous tests in vacuum conditions and endured launch vibration trials, while AOX’s mirrors not only aced vacuum tests but are also certified for space travel. Although the BMC crew has proven their mettle with ground-based DMs, like the coronagraph instrument at the Gemini Observatory, there’s still work in the pipeline to prep DMs for the next-gen space telescopes.

NASA’s got some grand schemes to showcase the prowess of deformable mirrors (DMs) by hitching a chronograph tech demo along with the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST) in May 2027. The insights gleaned from this test run will lay the groundwork for a top-notch setup for the Habitable Worlds Observatory (HabEx). If everything falls into place, NASA aims to kick off this mission by 2035, and it’s all set to directly snap images of planetary systems around stars resembling our Sun. But here’s the catch: The HWO is going to require DMs with around 10,000 actuators, each depending on high-voltage connections, and pulling that off is going to be a major challenge.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.