Developing telescopes that can see through the fog

Have you ever noticed that when driving under dull foggy conditions, sunglasses with orange or brown lenses often make it easier for you to see?  The glare from other people’s headlights is reduced and so is the glare coming back from your carís lights.  The glare issue is worse for those blue headlights.

The cause of the glare is a process called scattering, where the light waves hit the tiny droplets of water making the fog and are scattered in all directions. The degree of scattering is enormously higher for short wavelengths of light than it is for longer wavelengths. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light and is much more severely scattered. Therefore, glasses that reduce the amount of highly-scattered blue light reaching your eyes compared with the amount of much less-scattered red light will make it easier to see.

We get the same problem in astronomy. Many things we want to observe are buried within or behind great clouds of cosmic dust. For example, if you look southward on a summer evening you are looking in the direction of the centre of our galaxy. However, thanks to the dust clouds, you are actually seeing only a small fraction of the distance to it. The problem is once again, scattering.  As in the case of the fog, we can get around the problem by observing at longer wavelengths, such as in the infrared part of the spectrum. Using cameras and imagers sensitive to infrared light we can actually see the neighbourhood of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. If we observe using radio telescopes, at far longer wavelengths than light, there is little if any sign of those dust clouds at all. We can see straight through.

Another area of great astronomical interest is the birth of new stars and planets.  Since these bodies form from collapsing dust and gas clouds, the action is hidden in the densest part of the clouds. We only get to see light from the new stars after they have ignited and evaporated away their birth clouds. Once again, the longer wavelengths provide a solution. By observing at infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths, we can see inside and observe what ís happening.

We now have cameras and imagers that can deal with longer-wavelength, less scattered radiation, and telescopes designed for making observations in this part of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Canada is a partner in the Gemini telescope project, which involves two telescopes with eight metre mirrors, one in the northern and the other in the southern hemisphere. Another instrument in which Canada has a share is the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which operates at millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths, the twilight zone between the infrared and radio wave parts of the spectrum. With instruments like these, we can be there at the birth of new stars and planets.

However, the film star telescope in which Canada is involved is ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, which is under construction on the Atacama Plateau, in Chile. This imager, made up of many dish antennas, will show us things we have never seen before, in detail never before possible

Saturn rises about 7 p.m. The Moon will reach Last Quarter on the 24th.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.