Revolutionary telescope will soon alter what we know of the universe

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Ideas53:59A Clearer Universe: Astrophysicist Louise Edwards

By Louise Edwards, Astrophysicist

I was absolutely honoured and delighted to give the 8th annual Dan McLennan Lecture in Astronomy this winter. Halifax, and Saint Mary’s University is where I grew up, in the astronomical sense. My two years pursuing a Masters in Science provided me with decades long friendships I still hold dear, and introduced me to mentors I continue to admire today.

For the lecture, I decided to talk about the synergy between ground-based and space-based astronomy. It is an important concept, and also lends us the freedom to explore two of the most exciting and ambitious projects modern astronomy has given us: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST).

If you follow astronomy or space news, you’ve likely been subject to the flood of gorgeous, sharp and colourful images from the JWST: an array of objects from planets in our own Solar System (and others) to magnified galaxies viewed in the early stages of their formation.

Dozens of previously hidden jets and outflows from young stars are revealed in these images of the Cosmic Cliffs from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s Near-Infrared Camera, taken Dec. 15, 2022. (Science: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI/Image Processing: J. DePasquale )

The JWST is roughly the size of a tennis court, and we packaged it up into a rocket and blasted it out beyond the Earth. Its delicate origami-sails unfolded during the month-long journey — out past the Moon, over a million kilometres away.

The JWST will be able to study, in excruciating detail, the formation and evolution of galaxies in the universe. The view offered is highly sophisticated and comes with exceptional resolution in the tiny patches of sky that each JWST observation beholds.

Investigating dark matter

At the same time, to fully understand the general nature of the universe, we need a project that can survey vast swaths of space. This is where the Legacy Survey of Space and Time comes in.

It is an ambitious project that will survey the entire southern sky every few nights for 10 years, beginning in 2024. The project is housed within the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which includes a brand-new telescope that has been built specifically to carry out this project. The telescope’s primary mirror is huge, measuring 8.4m across and putting it in the class of today’s largest telescopes. The telescope’s camera is record-breaking. The survey will find billions of stars and galaxies, and result in the first motion-picture of the night sky. 

A group of mechanical engineers and techs stand in front of the Simonyi Survey Telescope, all wearing protective clothing and masks.
Engineers and technicians stand in front of the LSST Camera. Once complete and in place atop the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Simonyi Survey Telescope in Chile, the camera will survey the southern night sky for a decade, creating a trove of data that scientists will use to understand some of the universe’s biggest mysteries. (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

One of the biggest questions about the general nature of the universe that will be tackled by the LSST is: What is the nature of dark matter? You may have heard the term dark matter before, it refers to stuff (matter) that we can tell exists in space, even though it doesn’t reflect or shine any light (it is dark).

This mystery material was long thought to be regular stuff that didn’t give off any light — like, dark planets or black holes. But, recent measurements have shown us that a more reasonable guess is that dark matter is some massive collection of tiny particles (kind of like electrons or protons) that don’t readily respond to the instruments we’ve invented.

The search is on. All around the world there are “Dark Matter Detectors” — trying to catch these elusive particles, including a large detector in Canada at the SNOLAB.

An image that shows billions of stars within a cluster of galaxies
An image from the Hubble Space Telescope of a Galaxy cluster taken on March 26, 2018. Each individual red dot are each galaxies with billions of stars inside each one. (NASA/RELICS HST/JWST)

But so far, nothing has turned up. The LSST won’t detect any dark matter particles directly, but because the universe is made up of about 85 per cent dark matter, a better understanding of the size, shape and structure of the universe should help us better understand the nature of dark matter — and could help guide the direction for where and how the detectors we build should be searching.   

Vera Rubin’s ground-breaking work

So, if we haven’t found any dark matter yet, why are astronomers so convinced of its existence? 

For a long time we weren’t. It took data — large amounts of data — to convince astronomers that dark matter was a viable idea.

One of the most prominent figures of 20th century astronomy, Dr. Vera Rubin, spent many nights on large telescopes in the 1970s and 1980s collecting this data: looking at the motion of stars in galaxies and realizing more mass than can be seen was needed to guide the path of the stars within. 

This black and white image shows Vera Rubin using a telescope. She is wearing cat-eye glasses, smiling and has short hair. Her hand is on the equipment.
Dr. Vera Rubin provided important evidence of the existence of dark matter. In this image she is operating the 2.1-meter telescope at the National Science Foundation’s Kitt Peak National Observatory. (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Before Rubin’s work, the idea had surfaced, but the community was not convinced. After her brilliant and diligent work, the existence of dark matter could no longer be brushed off, and today it is fundamental to our understanding of the cosmos. So, it is quite fitting that the Observatory that is hunting for a deeper understanding of dark matter be named after Vera C. Rubin, who provided such compelling evidence for its existence.

Dr. Rubin was also a pioneer for creating a more inclusive astronomy community, especially for women in the field. When I applied to graduate school, I didn’t have to worry about where to go that might let in women [or Black people] but she did. When at Palomar Observatory, I observed there was a women’s washroom (for Rubin, there wasn’t).

When working on this lecture, I found one quote from Rubin to be particularly inspiring: “Having a family and a career was very hard, but it’s do-able.” 

A behind view of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory atop the Chilean Andes. A rocky terrain below with a blue sky horizon.
Once the Vera C. Rubin Observatory begins operations it will revolutionize the field of astronomy and what we know about the Universe. (Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA/O. Ri)

I wish it was a more commonly proclaimed statement. For over a decade I was constantly giving up social ties in the pursuit of the next step, and often I worried I was trading in what I really wanted (to be a parent) for what I’d worked so hard for (to be an academic).

For me, it was difficult, but also possible to invest in a chosen career and have a beautiful family life. 

What a truly magical evening for me to be able to share my love of astronomy, the first images from the JWST and imagine the future with LSST at the university that gave me so much.

If it is a clear evening tonight, go out and take a look up at the countless points of light above you. 


*This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.

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