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Astronomy’s big, bold and bright future

Tom Kerss FRAS

(Stargazing, Moongazing, The Northern Lights, YOU CAN explore the universe

This year, the 15th of May is a very special day. That’s right… it’s my birthday! Okay, it’s actually special for everyone else too, and for a very good reason: it’s International Astronomy Day. It’s a global celebration of the world’s oldest natural science, which has the power to inspire us – tiny creatures on a tiny planet – to think big about the endless expanse that starts just above our precious atmosphere.

It’s fascinating to look at astronomy’s past and realise just how far we’ve come in the four short centuries since Galileo stood in Venice demonstrating a curious new invention called the telescope. Passion, ingenuity and technology have taken us out of the age of superstition and revealed an extraordinary and wonderful range of objects scattered across the Universe. From hypergiant stars thousands of times bigger than the Sun, to worlds straight out of Star Wars with binary sunsets, to colliding black holes that warp time and space… it’s not just a love of the stars, but strange unanswered questions and undiscovered possibilities that keep astronomers up at night.

Yet for all this progress, the future of astronomy promises to be a much grander adventure. We are on the precipice of the next generation of great observatories. 2021 brings a big step into this new era when, all being well, Halloween marks the launch of the Webb Space Telescope. In many ways, this cutting-edge space-based observatory is the spiritual successor to the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, but it’s going to be far more capable. With a focus on looking at the infrared part of the spectrum, Webb will be the largest telescope ever launched into space, capable of collecting six times more light than Hubble. All-in-all, Webb will be about 100 times more powerful! Its unprecedented sensitivity will allow astronomers to peer back to the earliest moments of cosmic history, seeing the very first stars and galaxies like never before. Webb will also investigate other worlds across the Milky Way – exoplanets – searching for signs of habitability and life outside the Solar System.

Meanwhile here on the ground, new telescopes of astonishing size are being constructed in some of the driest and darkest in the world. The European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is among them. It’s hard to image a better name – the ELT will have a 39-metre-wide mirror! The colossal observatory is being built in the ultra-dry Atacama Desert of northern Chile where it will operate under crystal clear, beautifully dark skies – perhaps the finest of Earth. When it comes online in 2025 it will be a modern wonder of the world, a technological marvel, going toe-to-toe with space-based telescopes by using its adaptive optics system (including lasers!) to overcome the blurriness and wobbliness of the atmosphere.

We don’t always look at visible light or colours close to the visible spectrum, such as infrared and ultraviolet. Radio astronomy is another way to study the Universe. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the largest astronomical instrument ever built, spanning hundreds of radio telescope dishes across two continents. The SKA is on track for begin observing in 2027, using thousands of antennas to study the coldest (and in some cases oldest) things in space. Its strange view of the stars will complement the work of Webb and the ELT in helping astronomers to discover and understand never-before-seen objects. Who knows what they will find?

These are just a few of the ground-breaking telescopes that will take us forward over the next decade, but astronomy isn’t only the domain of super powerful, world-class observatories. It’s a field anyone can explore. It all starts with your own relationship to the night sky, and the stars you can see from your home. The Collins Astronomy range is carefully curated to support your enthusiasm for learning about the Cosmos, with accessible and expertly researched books for all ages. Budding young astronomers can try their hands at dozens of out-of-this-world activities in YOU CAN explore the universe. For everyone else, Stargazing and Moongazing offer comprehensive guides to the night sky and our nearest neighbour, which are further enriched by the annual Guide to the Night Sky and Night Sky Almanac. In September, The Northern Lights will join the range, just in time for you to make a trip and witness nature’s greatest light show. This International Astronomy Day, the Universe is waiting for you!

Tom Kerss is an astronomer, astrophotographer, and the author of Stargazing, Moongazing, YOU CAN explore the universe and The Northern Lights. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the founder of Stargazing✦London.