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by Elizabeth Howell
The dome clanks open. The room-sized telescope swings towards the gap, and fixes on a point in the sky. Peering into the cosmos, the lone astronomer stands below, dwarfed by the telescope.
That view of astronomy is so twentieth century.
Yes, there are still big observatories under construction on the ground. There’s a 39-meter telescope going up in Chile called the European Extremely Large Telescope, for example, that will produce images 16 times more sharp than the Hubble Space Telescope.
You’d be surprised, however, at how much even a tiny telescope can see in space. To prove that, on Feb. 25 three small Canadian satellites soared to space on an Indian rocket:
- Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSAT). For half its observing time, the telescope will look for asteroids larger than 500 metres that cross Earth’s orbit. For the other half, it’ll undertake a Department of National Defence watch for space junk.
- Sapphire. This telescope – another defence initiative – will look at objects that are 6,000 and 40,000 kilometers from Earth. It’ll feed into the American network of satellites watching the skies and making sure nothing crashes into each other.
- CanX-3 BRIght Target Explorer (BRITE). You know those bright stars you can see from Earth, such as those in Orion’s Belt? Turns out we know little about them compared to their fainter relatives. BRITE will check out these prominent stars for brightness variability, which will help us better understand the stars’ composition.
These telescopes are so small that it’s hard to imagine them doing anything but sitting quietly in their little boxes. BRITE is similar to a car battery, NEOSSAT is suitcase-sized, and Sapphire’s dimensions are close to that of a washing machine.
But we know they can do the work, as Canada has another tiny satellite in orbit, called MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of STars). It’s been up there for a decade looking at the structure of stars to better understand our sun. And performing splendidly still, we might add.
What makes these diminutive telescopes possible?
Computing technology is one obvious answer. All you need to do is pull the smartphone out of your pocket to see how far we’ve come. Smartphones are an awesome tool for journalism, as you can easily take video, pictures and notes on a device you hold in your hands. Same goes for science work. (In fact, another satellite launched with the Canadian ones – called STRaND-1 – that will be controlled by a smartphone Android operating system.)
What gets lost in the technology hubbub, however, is how well the scientists and defence officials suited their tools to the mission. They launched the small telescopes, simply put, because that is all they need to accomplish their objectives.
Take BRITE, for example; any properly functioning telescope can see a bright star. Even amateurs can track star brightness variability, leading to groups such as the American Association of Variable Star Observers. BRITE’s telescope is only 30 millimetres in diameter, but it’s plenty big enough to let the light in.
We’ll always need large telescopes to probe the furthest reaches of the cosmos, looking for how the Big Bang began or ferreting out planets orbiting other stars.
But this is the century for the small guys. It’ll be neat to see what they find out.