Working with the biggest telescopes in the world

Published: 15 Sep 2015 By Georgina Bloomfield

In the ever-changing world of astronomy, the race is on to build the biggest telescope in the world. From Hawaii to Chile, locations have been chosen and development has begun. The bigger the telescope the better – however these monstrous giants of technology have taken years to develop and will still take time to produce, as intricate engineering and building has to go underway.

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We have three competitors in the running: the European Extremely Large Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope. But how does one enter a career in giant telescopes? I spoke to Warren Skidmore, a research scientist for the Thirty Meter Telescope project (TMT).

“I always had a pretty unclear path during the days of my early education,’ he starts. ‘For A-Levels I studied maths, physics, chemistry and biology, and then swapped biology for electronics after a year. I was 17 when I got interested in astronomy. I’ve always had more of an engineering mind set, but always considered myself to be a scientist.”

Skidmore then studied physics and astrophysics at Leicester University, and then went on to do a Master’s in astrophysics and continued on to obtaining a PHD at Keele University in interacting binary stars. However, despite the very scientific educational background, Skidmore emphasises the need for passion. “By far my enthusiasm for the subject is more important than what I decided to do in my education.”

Eventually he became part of the project for site testing for the California Extremely Large Telescope project (CELT) which ultimately merged into TMT. As Skidmore says himself, he’s always had an aptitude for working in the middle of nowhere with limited resources, and his data analysis skills from his earlier days studying really came in handy.

If he could go back and do it all again, Warren says he would aim more towards engineering than science. “There’s much greater opportunities in the engineering field [in the US], and there’s many avenues where you really push the envelope and work on unusual projects. Some of my engineer colleagues designed rollercoasters for a living.”

Because he leans more towards science than engineering, it can prove difficult to get the two to gel together sometimes. Warren says: “I never had any formal engineering training for this particular job – a lot of what I know I learnt it here. It can sometimes be a little challenging to get scientists and engineers to communicate effectively. Engineers work within standard procedures, whereas scientists are idea-driven and unconstrained. Metaphorically, engineers work from a box of tools, whereas scientists don’t have a toolbox so have to create their own.” He also highlights that if he’d had more engineering training, this would help his role of facilitating communication between scientists and engineers a lot.

However, this isn’t the most challenging aspect of Warren’s job. The biggest challenge he’s had to face with TMT is the sheer size of it, and how it can cause issues with the mission. “The TMT is predicted to weigh 2,200 tonnes, so can’t move very fast to measure gamma ray bursts in the universe. The original ideas called for the telescope to turn and observe the burst in three minutes. With a telescope of this size, it just can’t happen. Somehow, we managed to develop a design for the telescope to move and measure a gamma ray explosion in five minutes. Astronomers reluctantly agreed that this is an acceptable solution to our -literally- very big problem, .”

Working with giant telescopes isn’t just about facts and figures. There’s a lot of practical engineering work that needs to be done, and is as challenging as it is enthralling. ‘I love the adventurous side of my job,’ Warren says. “I’ve worked in extreme environments doing very precise tasks such as aligning optical systems whilst being up on high towers wearing a safety harness. It can be very fiddly work, and if you drop any screws, it’s game over! You have to be very resourceful and disciplined in that kind of environment; you need to be able to fix things there and then if they go wrong, sometimes with very limited tools.”

“I love seeking answers to questions that have been asked for years and years. The science case we have with TMT means we could be surprised with what we find. The science that will come out of these scopes is going to be amazing.”

As excited as he is to see the project through, Skidmore knows that there are limitations. “You have to be ambitious with your goals otherwise you won’t build something that’s capable enough to do what you want. However, it can be depressing when you try to do too much at once! It wasn’t that long ago that European Extremely Large Telescope project (ESO) wanted to make a 100-metre telescope. It just isn’t possible, it’s impractical. They’re now working on a 39m telescope, which is still huge. TMT started out with more modest expectations and they never deviated from that. This definitely gives the company more credibility and at this stage the design for the TMT observatory and the organisation’s structure are very mature. Design with the other giant telescopes is evolving fast, and ESO and the Giant Magellan Telescope are very exciting projects. TMT is almost boring in comparison because we already know what it’s going to look like and how to build it.”

Warren works 10 hours a day 5 days a week. Sometimes more because he travels a lot. The work-life balance at TMT in particular is very good. ‘They’re a family friendly company. You can bring your children into the office, in fact they encourage it! It’s a good work environment, with lots of paid leave and parental leave and nobody abuses the good environment here. The benefits are good too. There’s a decent retirement plan, health insurance and life insurance. In Southern California scientists normally on average earn less than engineers.’

It’s not just about the three main telescopes either. Large telescope companies are everywhere around the globe, and each one has its own challenges and exciting elements.

Do you have an interest in aerospace but not sure where to start? Read our article here on why you should consider a career in aerospace.

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