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Telescopes Useless by 2050? 163

Posted by Zonk
from the sad-day-that-will-be dept.
Wellerite writes "Gerry Gilmore, from Cambridge University, has told the BBC that ground-based telescopes will be worthless by 2050. This is due to more and more cloud cover caused by climate change and increasing numbers of aircraft vapour trails. It seems to be time to start preparing to launch more orbit-based telescopes."
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Telescopes Useless by 2050?

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  • Most appropriate delivery of that message EVER.
  • by JDSalinger (911918) * on Thursday March 02, 2006 @06:23PM (#14838447)
    As much as I can tell, scoping out babes from a distance will continue to be the standard for Slashdotters far past 2050.
  • You either give up your cheap trips to Majorca, or you give up astronomy. You can't do both
    I am sure the fat lady at walmart driving her H2 wouldnt give a shit about astronomy.
    • huh? do weight, vehicle type, and location where one buys her toilet paper correlate with an interest in astronomy?

        Is this a joke with a reference that I'm failing to associate?
      • He was saying that the average person probably cares more about doing whatever they want in their life than astronomy, and they aren't willing to give up perks such as gas-guzzling vehicles for it. The field could disappear overnight and most people wouldn't care, because for the most part, people are shortsighted.

        The "fat lady driving a hummer" is a popular negative stereotype of the common person that (like many stereotypes) didn't exactly appear out of nowhere.
      • I'll bet my fat white middle-class ass that there's an inverse correlation between driving an H2 and an interestin astronomy.

        Or at least a nickel.

    • Until the oceans flood Majorca. And that Walmart. And the gas station. And her house.
    • You either give up your cheap trips to Majorca, or you give up astronomy. You can't do both

      False dilemma ... actually you can do both. Technology is not inherently dirty - it's possible to create and use cleaner technologies.

  • by Eightyford (893696) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @06:27PM (#14838481) Homepage
    Maybe ground based telescopes will not be as efficient 50 years without taking into account advances in technology, but I doubt that they will be obsolete. And what about the huge telescopes that are being planned today? They aren't going to be built where cloud cover will make them obsolete.

    Anyways, I guess a little more cloud cover and vapour trails combined with "light pollution" will make today's designs less efficient, but I can't see how there is any way that ground based telescopes will become obsolete.
    • If there are clouds you can't see through them. You can make the telescopes as efficient as you like, but if there's too much cloud (or, for some wavelength bands, water vapour) in the way, it doesn't matter how efficient you are because you won't get any photons hitting your detector.
      • If there is that much cloud that ground based telescopes become compleatly useless then we have tother tings to worry about, as we either be haveing a big problem with lack of sunlight geting though or a big problem with heat being traped, either way its bad.
    • by jd (1658) <imipak&yahoo,com> on Thursday March 02, 2006 @07:05PM (#14838810) Homepage Journal
      The scattering from air pollution is random and localized. It is going to be hard for computers to compensate for such stuff. It's bad enough to compensate for relatively uniform atmospheric distortion.


      Secondly, light pollution isn't just a localized problem. Light bends and reflects in the atmosphere very effectively. So much so, in fact, that the moon is still very clearly visible in a full lunar eclipse (it has a rusty brown colour) and car headlights are forever being mistaken for UFOs at a distance.


      Personally, I think we should have giant space telescopes anyway. Enough of the 9' junk we call Hubble, we need a good 100' optical space telescope. The mechanisms we use to compensate for atmospheric effects should work just as well for the distortion in space due to dust and crystalline particles in interstellar clouds.


      Actually, the way I'd do it is to have a set of giant space-based telescopes on a polar orbit around the moon such that they were always visible from Earth. Less atmospheric drag, so won't have as many problems as Hubble, and the orbit is much less crowded.

      • Interesting. I guess I just find it hard to believe that 50 years worth of pollution can have a large enough effect (or is it affect?) on ground-based telescopes as to make them obsolete.

        As for the 100' optical space telescope in orbit around the moon. I hope we have the technology and funding for that withing my lifetime, but I can't see that being too cheap!
      • Actually, the way I'd do it is to have a set of giant space-based telescopes on a polar orbit around the moon such that they were always visible from Earth. Less atmospheric drag, so won't have as many problems as Hubble, and the orbit is much less crowded.
        Actually, a telescope in lunar oribit has just as many problems as Hubble - because lunar orbits are unstable. This means that you need active propulsion systems for any kind of useful orbital lifetime.
      • by ceoyoyo (59147)
        The worst light pollution tends to be in fairly specific bands (such as from sodium street lights) and can be removed with filters. General skyglow can be removed fairly effectively digitally. Light pollution is undesirable, but it's not going to make ground telescopes obsolete.

        Large telescopes also tend to be built high on mountains, both because there's less atmosphere to look through, but more importantly because they're above the clouds.

        Big space telescopes would be cool all right, but it's kind of tr
        • by jd (1658)
          I can think of four options:
          1. Use a non-glass-based mirror and send the thing as a series of segments which you then recombine
          2. Make the glass in space (microgravity allows for purer products) and then use a robot arm to grind it a-la the Hubble mirror, only using a computer simulation for the template (so you don't get imperfections from a defective template, as happened with Hubble)
          3. Same as for 2, but use moon dust - it's much higher quality silica and you won't have to use so much fuel to get it into space.
          4. Se
          • All good potential solutions that we're just beginning to be able to think about doing, have drawbacks over ground based telescopes (but maintain the benefit of being in space) and are probably going to be at lot more expensive, at least until we have a major permanent presence in space.

            Definitely cool projects when we get that infrastructure though.
  • Antarctica? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    According to the article: A location has not been decided; but, despite the difficulties of access, Antarctica may become an option. The icy region has relatively clear skies, with a climate that is somewhat separate from other continents, and, crucially, is free from overflying commercial jets.
    • with a climate that is somewhat separate from other continents

      Yes, and a climate that happens to include a significant portion of time well below freezing. IANA Astronomer, but temperatures that cold would probably have an impact on the mechanics of a telescope.

      • Re:Antarctica? (Score:3, Informative)

        by Tango42 (662363)
        Actually cold is good for telescopes - it reduces the amount of infra-red the telescope and surrounding objects emit so there's less interference. I expect it's more of an issue with radio scopes than optical, but I know a lot of effort goes into cooling telescopes (and we're talking liquid helium, not just nitrogren - very cold!).
        • Sure, you'd like it cold for the sensor, but then you have worse problems.

          Once you open the dome for observations, you allow outdoor air to come in contact with indoor air. You're going to get turbulence and fog. If you put a layer of glass in the middle, you get dew or even frost. (and you still get turbulence, because the glass will be either warm or cold and thus not equal to the air on one side or the other)
        • The main reason large telescopes are cooled is because the sensor is a CCD. In CCDs, there is a phenomenon called "dark current." This refers to the electrons captured in the CCD as a result of thermal excitation, rather than optical excitation. Infra-red emitted from the surroundings would still count as optical excitation.

          It's a fuzzy number, but the amount of dark current generated _entirely within_ a CCD sensor doubles approximately every 7 degrees celsius when near room temperature.

          Associated with d
      • Yes, and a climate that happens to include a significant portion of time well below freezing. IANA Astronomer, but temperatures that cold would probably have an impact on the mechanics of a telescope.

        Hubble, being in orbit, sees lower temperatures (and greater variations of temperature) than anything at the south pole ever would. There's nothing in terms of engineering that prevents the building of a telescope in sub-zero temperatures.

    • Additionally it has this big ass ozone hole overhead, so it'll be even clearer. Gotta wear SP-500 ultraviolet protection though, but hey, gotta sacrifice something for science, eh?
      • SP-500 (Score:3, Insightful)

        by FuzzyDaddy (584528)
        Given that you need to do astronomy in the winter when there's no sun, it's probably not an issue. That and exposed skin has other problems in Antartica besides sunburn...
    • Re:Antarctica? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by tukkayoot (528280)
      Yeah, but Antartica is located on the bottom of the world. We won't be able to see anything from there!
      • Yeah, but Antartica is located on the bottom of the world. We won't be able to see anything from there!
        You joke, but there's some truth to the statement. Specifically, half of the sky is never visible from Antarctica (i.e. the northern celestial hemisphere).
        • As opposed, say, to the whole sky visible from the US? :-)) I didn't know that the planet was semi-transparent.
          • As opposed, say, to the whole sky visible from the US? :-)) I didn't know that the planet was semi-transparent.

            At the equator, the entire celestial sphere is visible at night at some point during the year. So if you want to study a certain object or field at an equatorial observatory, you can figure out what time of year it's up at night, and put that time constraint in your proposal. If your target is overhead at noon now, it will be overhead at midnight in six months.

            In contrast, at the poles, hal

    • despite the difficulties of access

      You don't necessarily need to be at the telescope to control the telescope [sonoma.edu].
  • by vertinox (846076) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @06:31PM (#14838516)
    Very large electric fans.
  • WTF?!? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by itwerx (165526) <itwerx@gmail.com> on Thursday March 02, 2006 @06:31PM (#14838517) Homepage
    It seems to be time to start preparing to launch more orbit-based telescopes.

    Er, yeah, let's treat the symptom and ignore the cause!
    • Re:WTF?!? (Score:2, Insightful)

      by nasch (598556)
      So astronomers should stop being astronomers and instead fight growing air travel and global warming? Or should they maybe work around their external limitations and find ways to keep being astronomers? I don't think the article implied that nothing should be done about any of the problems mentioned.
    • Re:WTF?!? (Score:3, Insightful)

      by nizo (81281) *
      It seems to be time to start preparing to launch more orbit-based telescopes.

      Or better yet, moon or mars based telescopes. The happy side effect is that a few astronomers will survive for awhile on the moon/mars after the earth becomes uninhabitable.


      Actually if you think about nearly every problem we have, we almost always concentrate on the symptoms instead of the cause. Which brings us back to why a few astronomers on the moon/mars would be a good thing....

      • Which brings us back to why a few astronomers on the moon/mars would be a good thing....

        Heh, mod parent Insightful! :)
  • I, for one, welcome our new Alien Overclouds!!
  • Nothing helps a cause more than disingenuous sensationalism.

    Remember, in 50 years deserts and mountains won't exist because of GLOBAL WARMING!!!!!1!
    • "Lela: Thank god nuclear winter cancelled out global warming"

      I get no traction trying to speak to others about global warming either. The idea is considered blasphomy that it may simply be part of a larger cycle, that the earth gets warmer, then cooler, regardless of what we humans are doing. I have no idea, but for so many to ignore it shows the true agenda. I would LOVE to know the truth, instead of having "dirty hippies" tell me I am a horrible human for even asking the question.

      For many (not all) i
      • For many, including me, its an issue of taking the safest path. As you said, we dont know if its just a cycle of the earth, but it is far safer to assume it is us causing the shift. If it isn't, then our changes will have no effect, and - oh darn, we guessed wrong. If it is us, and we dont stop, then it may be too late to stop by the time enough people realize it.

        I am attempting to make this planet as habitable as possible for future generations, and I dont see the concessions as being so grave as to ju
        • The safest path argument is compelling, but others are more concerned about the safest path for preserving freedom.
        • but it is far safer to assume it is us causing the shift.

          But what about the fact that the sun, which drives all the earth's weather, has been steadily getting warmer since at least the late 70s [space.com], if not earlier? Heck, I doubt any sane person could blame that on the usual idustrialization, America, SUV driver, or whatever the scapegoat du jour is.

          • Quite true. Heck, we could nuke the earth and it would be insiginificant compared to the sun. You will note, however, that the article is merely speculating. The earth's climate is a complex thing, and we can't claim to fully understand it, so thats why it makes taking the safe route all the more important. If we reduce our emissions to a significant degree, and global warming is still in as strong an effect (or stronger) a half dozen centuries or so down the line, then we can probably conclude that we
      • Re:Oh NOES! (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SetupWeasel (54062)
        I believe that we need to reduce pollution as much as we possibly can. That said, I am tired of people on the right and the left trying to scare people into believing their argument.

        Strong regulations against pollution will not destroy America. On the other hand, the apparent warming of the Earth will not incinerate us all.

        There are many people invested in the idea that we alone are to blame for this "crisis." Respected scientists publish graph after graph showing that the temperature is rising with the ris
        • It is time to put some focus on the Sun's luminosity.

          The Sun's luminosity is continously monitored both on the ground and from satellites, and is known at better than 0.1% precision. If there was more light coming in, we would know immediately.
        • I would agree that the best reasons to reduce pollution is that I like clean and water. I just don't understand the polarization of the issue: One side wants us all to live like cave men, the other wants unrestricted rights to pollute. I am not convinced that "man made global warming" is occuring, but I still don't want mercury in my drinking water.

          It would seem the smartest idea would be to take a long term approach, lowering the allowed amount of pollution over a long time, which would actually HELP th
      • > For many (not all) it is about anti-capitalism and controlling others. Misery loves company, and
        Yes, there are a lot of bozos on either side of the "debate". The fact that idiots agree with me doesn't invalidate my opinion, though.

        > there really are millions out there who think they are smarter than the rest of us,
        Statistically, there are millions of people that are smarter than the rest of us. It's the beauty of the bell curve ;)

        > and think we should all live like they want us to live, whether
  • Professor Gilmore said sites where observatories are located, such as the Canary Islands, Hawaii and South America, are also attractive holiday destinations, and likely centres for future air traffic growth.

    While there may be problems with future air traffic growth around the world, Hawai'i may not necessarily be involved in those problems. According to this article at CNN [cnn.com] Hawai'i is close to capacity. There may or may not be significant growth in air traffic to the islands.

  • This is Pure BS (Score:2, Insightful)

    by wsxyz (543068)
    There is no way that ground-based telescopes are going to become "worthless" by 2050. This is just a false sensationalist claim intended to stir up trouble.

    It is possible that cloud cover will increase in some places, and I can believe that jet contrails reduce the visibility of astronomical objects, but unless cloud cover increases to 100% over the entire surface of the earth and/or atmospheric jet travel increases by many orders of magnitudes, there will still be plenty of cloudless night sky on the pl
  • by Captain Lou (904174) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @07:01PM (#14838767)
    THe upside to this is of course all those massive lenses and mirrors will be coming on the market.

    Evil Geniuses planning to build a super laser and extort the world for billions of dollars on a budget rejoice!
  • "it was us who scorched the sky."
  • nature of research (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Thursday March 02, 2006 @08:32PM (#14839384) Homepage
    I did physics research for a few years as a grad student and postdoc, and one thing I learned was that 95% of all research (including 95% of my own) was correct but unimportant. If scientists have access to incremental improvements in technique, they'll still keep on writing grant proposals, taking on grad students, and publishing papers, but very little of the scientific output will be all that earthshattering. All the really big exciting results tend to come out when some new technique is found. In physics, a good example is the groundbreaking experiments (like the discovery of the nucleus) that happened once the Curies purified radium. In astronomy, Galileo's introduction of the telescope itself to astronomy led to a huge amount of progress in a short time.

    If there's observing time available on a 10-meter ground-based telescope, you'd better believe there will be competition for that observing time, and papers will be published. But if really amazing things are going to be discovered, it's probably going to come from techniques that are a big leap ahead of what we have now, like telescopes in space. Telescopes in space can have apertures as big as you like without buckling under their own weight, they can probe parts of the spectrum that don't get through the atmosphere, and they're not affected by issues like clouds and contrails.

    I don't find it hard to believe that contrails could be a major issue. Every time I go backpacking and spend a lot of time in a remote spot in the Seirras looking up at the sky, that's what I see a lot of -- jet contrails. If ground-based astronomy is already being pushed to the limits of what it can do, then presumably they're often working at levels of sensitivity a gazillion orders of magnitude beyond the naked eye, so I can easily imagine that contrails that would appear to the naked eye to have completely dissipated could be an issue.

    • If there's observing time available on a 10-meter ground-based telescope, you'd better believe there will be competition for that observing time, and papers will be published. But if really amazing things are going to be discovered, it's probably going to come from techniques that are a big leap ahead of what we have now, like telescopes in space. Telescopes in space can have apertures as big as you like without buckling under their own weight, they can probe parts of the spectrum that don't get through the
    • But that 95% still needs to be done. After all, the most interesting phrase in research is NOT "Eureka!", it is "that's odd.."
  • It's overcast and cloudy here nine months of the year, so if you want to use a telescope, you have to be really lucky, or use it during the summer months.
  • Seeings as where my eyesight will be nearly gone by 2050 and my skin is too light for much sun this is the best news I've heard in a long time.
  • and I predict that by 2080 earth-orbit-based telescopes will become useless due to amount of space junk and rocket exhaust vapor clouds ;)

    Time to think of a solar-orbit telescope?
  • There's a fascinating document at http://caao.as.arizona.edu/publications/2004%20spi e%20plenary%20final%202.pdf [arizona.edu]
    comparing and contrasting three sites for a new major telescope facility. Suffice it to say that the top of an unclimbed mountain in the middle of Antarctica is the MOST pleasant and accessible of them.
  • Ground based telescopes will end up being for hobbyists that want to look at mars or the moon, true astronomy work will come from orbital telescopes that can peer into the far reaching depths of space. At least optical ones. Global climate changes shouldn't affect radio frequency telescopes for deep space scanning.

Prediction is very difficult, especially of the future. - Niels Bohr

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