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UW Professor Chosen to Define Science for Massive International Telescope

March 10, 2014
Man smiling
University of Wyoming Professor Mike Pierce was chosen to be a member of one the Thirty Meter Telescope’s eight International Science Definition Teams. (UW Photo)

University of Wyoming astronomer Mike Pierce is a member of a team that is planning for the science to be explored with the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT),  a cooperative international project that will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth.

When it’s completed near the end of the decade, the TMT will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout the Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, as well as galaxies forming at the very edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time, says Pierce, an associate professor in the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Because of his expertise in principles that can be applied to understanding the formation of the distant universe, Pierce was chosen to be a member of one the TMT project’s eight International Science Definition Teams.

“Our charge will be to help define and communicate the science that will be done with the next generation of large ground-based telescopes,” Pierce says. “It’s a $1 billion project that promises to transform  ground-based astronomy.”

The TMT is a collaboration among United States universities led by Cal Tech and the University of California system and institutions in Canada, China, India and Japan, and with major funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The parties have signed a master agreement that defines the project goals, establishes a governance structure and defines member party rights, obligations and benefits.

Pierce will describe how techniques he developed to characterize nearby galaxies can be applied to ever more distant galaxies. While they were formed billions of years ago, they left what Pierce calls a “fossil record” of how they were formed.An artist’s view of the Thirty Meter Telescope that will be built on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. (TMT Photo)

“As we reach further distances, we are looking back in time, to shortly after the universe was formed,” he says. “Based on the data we have, we can see the differences in the processes that form galaxies, and we can apply these same techniques to the distant universe that we’ll observe with the next generation of large ground-based telescopes. These big telescopes will help us answer questions about the formation of these distant galaxies and their stars.”

The team is charged not only with defining the science that will be conducted using the TMT, but also with determining what scientists can do now to lay the groundwork necessary to support the new telescope once it becomes available.

The scale of the TMT, Pierce says, is truly massive and “hard to imagine.” It can collect roughly 200 times as much light as UW’s Wyoming Infrared Telescope on Jelm Mountain, and will provide resolutions 10 times greater than those now obtained with the Hubble space telescope. The TMT rises more than 164 feet off the ground and is more than 184 feet wide, not including the enclosure.

UW will benefit by Pierce’s involvement in the project, he says.

“I am developing collaborations with people whose institutions have supplied funding to build the TMT, and this is strengthening the science I’m doing on existing facilities to prepare for the work that will be done when the telescope is completed,” he explains. “Additionally, these collaborations may lead to opportunities to access the telescope once it’s built.”

TMT access to UW scientists also may be available if the National Science Foundation contributes the $100 million to $150 million it is considering for the project. That would make it possible for scientists to gain access for time on the telescope, awarded on a competitive basis.

The TMT board of directors, in 2009, selected Mauna Kea in Hawaii as the site for the telescope. Pierce says it provides the ideal atmospheric conditions for observing the universe.

For more information about the TMT, visit​.

Hear UW astronomer Mike Pierce discuss his role on the international Thirty Meter Telescope Project.Hear UW astronomer Mike Pierce discuss his role on the international Thirty Meter Telescope Project.

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