Home Science How Our View of the Ancient Universe Could Slowly Fade Away

How Our View of the Ancient Universe Could Slowly Fade Away

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Toni Santana-Ros is an asteroid hunter.

After night falls and the final scene of flamingo sunbeams fades to black, he looks up at the sky to see space rocks swimming along the solar system’s gravitational currents. Sometimes we see debris casually cruising next to Earth, greeting our telescope-friendly ‘hello’, never to be observed again, but every now and then, he crashes with our delicate blue orb and crashes him in his course. catch one of

Last year Santana-Ros, a planetary scientist at the University of Alicante in Spain, took action when astronomers discovered the named asteroid. 2022 WJ1 Headed straight for the Canadian-American border. In just four hours, he assembled a team to find out exactly how threatening this asteroid is. Which town will it threaten? Will it be like a Chicxulub that kills dinosaurs, or just makes a “pop” sound before sinking into a rugged body of water?

“Fortunately, the object was small and produced only a nice fireball,” he concluded.

But what if such a time-sensitive asteroid warning had been sent when the Santana Los telescope was shut down in November 2020? Breaking into some telescopes, did the astronomers have to take the soot clumps down from the telescopes after the wind subsided?

“Climate change is already affecting astronomy and my work,” said Santana Ross.

Time and time again, studies show that Climate change is leading to an increase Incidence and severity of wildfires over the years.The current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions suggests that, depending on the model, Predict the risk of very large wildfires It will increase sixfold in the United States by mid-century.


While shutting down the telescope, Santana-Ros said he received news of the disruption while he was comfortably at home. “There was no big drama.”

But these flames kept his team out of the telescope for several weeks.

“The bottom line is that we got lucky this time. We just missed some of the normal observations,” he said. “Next time we may face a real threat.”

astronomical problem

Over the last few decades, climate change has changed our relationship with the planet.

Global industry still burn coal It produces cheap electricity, diffuses dangerous fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere, heats the planet, and ultimately Forest fire The person responsible for sabotaging Santana Ross’ research.Meanwhile, scientists are trying to learn how to evacuate Homeless endangered animals Deforestation has destroyed wildlife habitats, and we have lost our way of coping with cyclones. Tearing up coastal villages.

It’s like we’re no longer part of the Earth, we’re no longer blended into our environment like the oak trees and butterflies that share cosmic matter. It’s like being

But amid all this turmoil, astronomers are starting to think about another heartbreaking angle to the crisis. There is a nature.


As global warming accelerates, ground-based telescopes will find it harder to warn us about asteroids, show us glowing galaxies, and provide views of the rest of the eternally inhabiting mysterious exoplanets. The ubiquitous love we witnessed NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Two Christmases ago.

typhoon, floodfire and drought It is becoming the norm in astronomy centers such as Hawaii and New Mexico. Sites like Les Meek Observatory were hit by severe storms, while Santana His Ross had to deal with bushfires near his tool in Australia.

And it’s not just full-blown disasters that we have to worry about. It’s also the little things. Temperature, humidity, and steady weather changes are usually the factors necessary for a telescope to operate at its best.

In a recent paper It was published Last October’s journal Astronomy & Astrophysics focused on these key details while outlining the ominous future of astronomy. Its authors delve into how climate change will affect his eight major optical telescopes scattered around the world. Not just today, but by 2050.

“Our results show that climate change will adversely affect the quality of astronomical observations,” they say.

Time lost like a night of stargazing.

“My initial reaction to the paper was ‘disgust.’ This is another disastrous consequence of climate change,” said Clara Sousa Silva, a quantum astrophysicist at Bard University. I’m here. “I hadn’t previously considered how it would affect future observations, but of course it makes perfect sense. It still worries me.”

“As an anecdote, careful noting the possibility of confirmation bias, she continued: “Observatory colleagues have complained that in recent years more and more nights seem to be lost because of the weather. increase.”

Barrier of Starlight

Caroline Haslebacher, a doctoral student at the University of Bern in Switzerland and the lead author of the recent study, along with her advisors, realized that no one had really examined how climate change might affect astronomical observations. I was. The damage has already been done.

They quickly moved in and closed the gap.

The team modeled what happens to these eight telescope targets as the Earth heats up, suggesting that we will eventually see an increase in what is known as specific humidity and precipitation water vapor over the next few years. I’m here.

Essentially, this means more water in the air due to climate change. Water in the air is a problematic situation because it tends to absorb the same light that telescopes are trying to capture.

“Many of the most exciting astronomical observations are made at the limits of the capabilities of the instruments,” says Sousa-Silva. “Additional noise directly limits the discoveries we can make.”

For example, the authors of the study expect the extinct volcano of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, home to many observatories, to see 0.3 mm of water gain by 2050. with other sites. “But it’s still not zero,” said John O’Meara, Mauna Kea’s chief scientist. Keck ObservatorySaid.

With this paper in mind, he is particularly concerned that the increase in water vapor affects visible light rather than it.
Infrared observations at locations in Hawaii. Such hazes are very likely to cause problems for this category of light emanating from distant space.

As its wavelength stretches as it moves away from Earth, it turns reddish and elusive in the infrared pattern over time. This is invisible to the human eye but can be analyzed by sophisticated machines. This is exactly the form of light signal that scientists prefer, and it could reveal to us what the universe looked like when it first started emitting light.

It’s a shame that such rich levels of cosmic history are slowly fading from our perspective here on Earth.

“Climate change impacts have historically not been included in site selection studies, but now there are new variables to consider,” said O’Meara.

For this reason, Haslebacher believes there will be a need to analyze trends when building future telescopes.

“It’s an urgent need for telescopes under construction,” she said.Adjust your design for changing climatic conditions and plan your telescope so that you can choose a site with the least impact. ”

But even that effort may not be enough to offset the barriers this crisis creates. More water vapor only reduces light transmission in some spectral bands. Or, as Sousa Silva puts it, “you’ll literally have less to see.”


lonely space machine

Since the industrial revolution, humanity has been like A cacophony loop on climate change – one that, as expected, turned into a political debate.

Last year, COP27 marked the 27th anniversary of world leaders coming together to discuss how to save the planet.

“It must be emphasized at this point that of the five possible pathways, we investigated the scenario of the shared socio-economic pathway, which emits the most greenhouse gases,” Haslebacher said of his paper. says. “Unfortunately, we are following this scenario today.”

In other words, the worst case scenario is the one we are currently experiencing.

Still, some policymakers and energy giants Justify This kind of human rebellion against the natural world, and even Encourage – Because fossil fuels provide us with cheap electricity. Without affordable energy, they worry. Other fiscal budget As compensation for keeping your iPhone battery a healthy green.

But we pay differently to sustain fossil power.


“We as a nation and as a world know what we need to do to avoid the worst impacts, but we are largely unwilling to act on the scale that the situation demands.” We fear that we will only wake up after a truly major catastrophe or conflict, by which time it may be too late to avoid the next disaster.”

What’s more, the same pollution that heats the planet undoubtedly has other effects, such as thickening the atmosphere.

“An optically thick atmosphere is one in which less radiation travels,” said Luigi Videl, professor of climate system science and climate hazards at the University of Reading and co-author of the study. “nevertheless [our] Although the model was considered a maximum future emissions scenario, it may still underestimate the impact of air pollution on local visibility. ”

O’Meara explained it simply:

To name a few more impacts, global warming could reduce the overall atmospheric quality at the telescope’s site, creating the right conditions for turbulence during observations. It can prevent the machine from cooling to a proper checkpoint before. Honestly, the concerns are deep enough to affect all sciences, not just astronomy.

“It will change our entire world,” said Santana Ross.

Funding scientific projects is already a big conundrum. In most cases, only those who have received awards, such as grants, awards, or scholarships, are able to continue their research over the years.

In addition, if we are waiting for a climate change response and something drastic happens, we need to divert resources from astronomy, medicine, chemistry, biology, botany, etc. to climate science.

“There is still time for science and industry to lead us to a better climate future,” said O’Meara. “All it takes is determination and investment.” It’s becoming clear that the promise of ground-based telescopes could one day be a thing of the past if action isn’t taken soon… from a human-made catastrophe. It vanishes along with all the other beautiful things it is tasked with protecting.

At that point, the only links to the stars we had left were our space-borne machines: the Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble – hunks of metal floating above the ruined Earth, and the human race from nature. Exit witness.

“Plans to colonize other planets are still science fiction and will continue for decades,” said Santana Ross. “Our only option for survival is to mitigate climate change.” ”

All images: Robert Rodriguez/CNET.

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