Oh, snap. A powerful new array of telescopes took its first pictures, the European Southern Observatory announced today. "First light" photos aren't always scientifically interesting, but in the years to come, the Next-Generation Transit Survey will take images of planets orbiting other suns, seeking worlds that look a bit like Earth.
Sometimes a bargain satellite is best. Engineers have been making cubesats - cheap cube-satellites that hitch a ride onto rockets and are jettisoned into orbit - for a decade now, and today, another team of engineers will launch two more. The difference is, these ones will be outfitted with tiny telescopes, and they're small enough to be the smallest space telescopes in existence.
By tying together the observational power of three radio telescopes, astronomers have made the sharpest observation of a distant galaxy, some two million times sharper than human vision. That's big news in and of itself, but it's even bigger news for astronomers pursuing next-level Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). The observation demonstrates a kind of telescopic collaboration that's never been seen before, hinting at the future of astronomical observation.
The telescopes get bigger and more sophisticated, the light we can see comes in from deeper in the cosmos, and the most-distant visible objects keep getting further away. Last October astronomers using Hubble Space Telescope data reported sighting a possible galaxy some 13.2 billion light years away. That sighting is still awaiting confirmation as a galaxy, and in the meantime it has some competition in a galaxy discovered by scientists at the Subaru and Keck Telescopes that has, for the time being, seized the title of most distant known galaxy.
It almost sounds too good to be true. Twin Hubble-quality space telescopes currently collecting dust in upstate New York are getting a second chance at flight, and they could be the best thing to happen to NASA since the real Hubble's mirrors were fixed. The unused scopes are even the same size as the beloved space telescope, and nary a civilian knew they existed until yesterday.
Anyone who has ever owned a telescope understands the feeling of anticipation that comes with a cloudless, moonless night. Whether it's humid and mosquito-y or freezing cold, when the stars show themselves, you do what it takes to prepare for a night outside. What should I look for tonight? Maybe a nice globular cluster; maybe Jupiter at opposition, looking graceful through new colour filters.