Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Biggest Eye on the Sky

By David Reneke

News from the space and astronomy communities around the world.

Galileo would be over the Moon if he could see how his rudimentary invention has evolved! The world’s largest optical/infrared telescope has been given the initial go-ahead to be built. Called the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), this long-proposed new ground based telescope will have a 40-metre main mirror and observe the universe in visible and infrared light.

We’ll be imaging exoplanets more closely than ever imagined, perhaps finding Earth-sized and even Earth-like worlds, and we’ll study the first galaxies that formed just after the Big Bang.

At a meeting in France recently, the European Southern Observatory Council approved the E-ELT program, with six of ten countries giving firm approval and four giving a preliminary OK pending an official green light from their governments.

“This is an excellent outcome and a great day for ESO. We can now move forward on schedule with this giant project,” said ESO Director General, Tim de Zeeuw. With that approval, officials are hopeful the E-ELT could start operations by the early 2020s.

The new super-large “big eye” on the sky will be built at Cerro Armazones in northern Chile, close to ESO’s Paranal Observatory, at an estimated cost of US$1.35 billion.

Astronomers have had this instrument on their priority list for a long time. The E-ELT will gather 100 million times more light than the human eye, eight million times more than Galileo’s primitive telescope which saw the four biggest moons of Jupiter four centuries ago, and 26 times more powerful than a single VLT telescope!

Humankind will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time and attain some notable firsts, including finding the Holy Grail of modern observational astronomy: locating other Earths like ours circling stars in their habitable zones where life could exist.

The ESO said that early contracts for the project have already been placed. Detailed design work for the site is also in progress and some of the civil works are expected to begin this year.

The start of a new millennium has also heralded the golden age of astronomy.

Who Owns the Asteroids?
A US start-up firm, Planetary Resources, has unveiled its plans to survey and mine asteroids for water, precious metals and other resources – but legal issues are not at the top of their list of priorities.

“We as a US company certainly have the right to go visit an asteroid and make use of its resources,” Planetary Resources co-founder Eric Anderson said. “It’s a stated goal of the US government to enable and promote commercial activities and economic activity in space,” he said.

A bold statement, and possibly right from a national standpoint, but asteroid mining may be at odds with the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, the legal framework for international space law. The United States is among more than 100 countries that have signed the Treaty.

Article 2 of the Treaty states: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.

The issue of private property in space has been a topic that polarises authority. People have been discussing it on and off for decades, and with private space tourism looming, the legal profession is starting to specialise in what it’s calling “space law”.

The UN Treaty in essence forbids private ownership of celestial property. According to the Treaty, you cannot arrive on the Moon or an asteroid and claim it for ownership, at least as a country. Company ownership confuses the issue, but it’s thought that most lawyers would agree they’re one and the same.

Planetary Resources is eying natural resources beyond Earth, and it’s quite feasible that the world’s first trillionaires will make their money in low Earth orbit during the coming decades.

“It is my belief that, in the end, capability will trump law,” said Bigelow Aerospace attorney Michael Gold. He couldn’t have a more appropriate surname. “Legal justification to mine asteroids likely would follow technical capability, Gold added.

Founded by Robert Bigelow in 1998, Bigelow Aerospace is a Nevada space technology company pioneering work on expandable space station modules.

Planetary Resources will have decades to work out any legal kinks. The company is developing a line of low-cost orbiting observatories sold to commercial, educational and research entities for a variety of purposes, including remote studies of near-Earth asteroids.

Ultimately, Planetary Resources will send a prospecting spacecraft to a targeted asteroid to test extraction techniques. “We have a long view. We’re not expecting this company to be an overnight financial home run,” Anderson said.

David Reneke is an astronomy lecturer and teacher, a feature writer for major Australian newspapers and magazines, and a science correspondent for ABC and commercial radio. Subscribe to David’s free Astro-Space newsletter at www.davidreneke.com