UC San Diego has begun designing a powerful telescope that will be placed in Chile’s Atacama Desert to search for “ancient light” that could help explain how the universe arose from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.
The $10 million telescope will be the largest of five instruments that are being developed as part of the Simons Observatory, which will be located on a high, arid plateau that’s well-suited for searching the cosmos.
UC San Diego will collaborate with a Germany company on the design and construction of the big telescope, which will likely go online in 2020.
“The telescope will be able to zoom in on massive clusters of galaxies which are difficult to see because they’re so far away,” said Brian Keating, the UC San Diego astrophysicist who serves as director of the observatory.
“The galaxies emit microwave energy that will help us learn how matter and energy has evolved over time. The telescope is like a time machine; it’ll let us study what galaxies were like way back in time.”
UC San Diego is leading a consortium of 35 scientific institutions from around the world in the development of the observatory, partly because the campus has played a pivotal role in fundraising. In 2016, Keating persuaded New York billionaire James Simons to donate $38.4 million for the project.
Keating also is a respected cosmologist who helped to develop BICEP2, a telescope at the South Pole that has been used by a coalition of investigators to study the early universe in what has proven to be very vexing work.
In early 2014, a team of BICEP2 researchers announced that they had detected remnants of the Big Bang. The remnants were described as gravitational waves that were produced shortly after the Big Bang occurred. The news caused a sensation when it was made public at Harvard, and led to speculation that some of the researchers would win the Nobel Prize.
Subsequent research showed that the scientists had actually detected dust from the Milky Way.
The episode is the subject of a new book by Keating. He titled it, “Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor.”
The book, which will be released in April, partly focuses on Keating’s belief that the Nobel Prize can be damaging to science because it pressures researchers to work fast rather than taking the time to collaborate more fully.