From The University of Melbourne (AU): “Putting the Universe under the telescope” 


From The University of Melbourne (AU)


15 January 2020 [Re-presented 10.26.21]
Clare Kenyon

We humans are a curious, questing lot, and the 2020s will see us continue to observe the Universe around us, trying to understand more about fundamental particles, forces, objects and relationships from both ground and space-based instruments.

At the same time, our interest and technological capacity to push the boundaries of space exploration in the physical sense through manned and unmanned missions is beginning to boom.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration(US)/European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne] [Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU) Hubble Space Telescope

Somewhat paradoxically, one of the most interesting observatories to keep an eye on over the 2020s does not ‘look’ at the universe at all.


The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Caltech/ MIT Advanced aLIGO (US)) is a huge, international, multi-billion-dollar collaborative effort which seeks to detect ripples in spacetime caused by the interactions of very massive objects by measuring changes in distances smaller than 1/10,000th the width of a proton.

Caltech /MIT Advanced aLigo

Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo Hanford, WA, USA installation.

Caltech/MIT Advanced aLigo detector installation Livingston, LA, USA.

SXS – Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes

Gravitational waves. Credit: MPG Institute for Gravitational Physics [Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik] (Albert Einstein Institute) (DE)/W.Benger-Zib

Gravity is talking. Lisa will listen. Dialogos of Eide.

European Space Agency(EU)/National Aeronautics and Space Administration (US) eLISA space based, the future of gravitational wave research.

After enduring silence in the first decade of the 2000s, LIGO detected its first of several inspiralling black hole events and also a neutron star collision.

Although these detections are a solid nod to Einsteinian physics, they also represent major advances in instrumentation, modelling, engineering, collaboration and our understanding of the evolution of the Universe.

In the past three weeks, another detection has been announced, with signals seeming to suggest a merger of two unexpectedly massive neutron stars – potentially a new class of neutron star object. Planned upgrades and expansions to LIGO should give us an exciting decade of more discoveries with a much higher quality of data.


In keeping with the theme of ‘non-visible’ astronomy, astronomers will push forward into the 2020s, trying to address some of the most fundamental questions about our Universe which have so far evaded answers.

In particular, the nature of dark matter – thought to comprise up to 85 per cent of the matter of the Universe, yet still evades satisfactory categorisation (for example cold, warm or hot), despite it having been somewhat vaguely proposed in the late 1800s.

Starburst in a Dwarf Irregular Galaxy. Picture: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage (The Space Telescope Science Institute (US)/The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA)(US))

This field combines cosmology and particle physics in experiments that are either focussed on direct or indirect detection.

In the past week, evidence from a recent project using the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that dark matter can form in much smaller clumps than previously expected, providing strong evidence for the cold (or slow-moving) dark matter scenario.

Closer to home, in a collaborative initiative of which the University of Melbourne is a part, the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory (SUPL) is a planned one kilometre-deep laboratory intended to detect seasonal variations in dark matter signals.

Searching for Dark Matter. Video:The Swinburne University of Technology (AU)


This coming decade will likely see the beginnings of the true commercialisation of space travel.

For example, private companies, such as Boeing and SpaceX, have formed partnerships with government space agencies and organisations such as via NASA’s Commercial Crew programme with the aim of developing safe, reliable and economically-viable options for reaching low earth orbit.

This will enable NASA to end its reliance on the Russian Soyuz rockets and in turn allows for private enterprise to begin selling seats on their vehicles such as Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, coupled with accommodation in the ISS to privately paying customers.

Both have experienced teething problems and are undergoing improvements, but one can reasonably expect to see them operational over the next few years.

Although difficult to get a clear idea of progress, other countries such as China, India and Russia are pursuing their own human spaceflight programmes, whilst NASA continues to also work on its own vehicles to be launched from US soil, in addition to the partnerships with private enterprises, aiming to get men and women back to the Moon by 2024.

The early 2020s will see other companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin effectively ignite the space tourism market by enabling paying customers to purchase trips to suborbital space.

The successful floating of Virgin Galactic on the New York Stock Exchange in October 2019 hints at the commercial interest in point-to-point transportation on Earth via suborbital space.


As our technological capabilities increase, so too does our obsession with the search for life outside of Earth.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has already kicked off 2020 with the discovery of its first Earth-size planet in a star’s ‘habitable zone’, which is the range of distances from a planet’s host star where the temperature potentially allows liquid water to exist on the planet’s surface.

The National Aeronautics Space Agency (US)/Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) TESS

Massachusetts Institute of Technology(US) TESS – Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite replaced the Kepler Space Telescope in search for exoplanets. TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (US).

NASA/MIT Tess in the building

The National Aeronautics Space Agency (US)/ The Massachusetts Institute of Technology(US) TESS – Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite replaced the Kepler Space Telescope in search for exoplanets. TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US), and managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (US).

Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley; The Center for Astrophysics – Harvard and Smithsonian; The MIT Lincoln Laboratory; and The STScI(US) in Baltimore.


Scientists are already producing different 3D atmospheric and climate models for the planet in question, known as TOI 700 d, waiting for new data to emerge over the coming decade to help narrow down important modelling parameters.

At least six missions are already at work or planned to launch, mostly by NASA and ESA like Cheops, the James Webb Telescope and Ariel, which will add to the over 4,000 confirmed exoplanets and will also give us more accurate and detailed information on sizes, compositions and conditions of the planets and their host stars.

European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU)/CHEOPS

National Aeronautics Space Agency(USA)/European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU)/ Canadian Space Agency [Agence Spatiale Canadienne](CA) Webb Infrared Space Telescope(US) James Webb Space Telescope annotated. Scheduled for launch in October 2021 delayed to December 2021.

UK-led ESA mission ARIEL -Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey


While we whet our voracious appetites for detecting planets around star systems far beyond our own via a vast number of surveys and programmes, missions involving physical probes for life on other planets and moons within our Solar System are being planned and implemented.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover, is set to search for evidence of life on Mars with a planned touch down in early 2021, while separate flyby missions to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon, Europa, and Saturn’s atmospherically hazy moon, Titan, are due for launch in 2025 and 2026, respectively.

Although not approved within budget as yet, there is potential for a lander-based mission to Europa, potentially enabling scientists to test for the existence of a salty brine beneath its frozen crust.

Not to be outdone, ESA also has plans to revisit Mars, having launched an orbiter in 2016, delivering the ExoMars 2020 which will also focus on chemically and mineralogically analysing drilled samples for traces of past microbial life.

Perseverence Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover – NASA Mars annotated.

European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU)/Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities,A.K.A. Roscosmos [Роскосмос] (RU) ExoMars Rosalind Franklin, scheduled for launch in September 2022.

Finally, our attempts to both listen for and reach out to any existing extra-terrestrial life will continue throughout the 2020s and beyond.

For example, initiatives such as Breakthrough Listen, a ten-year, US$100,000,000 programme begun in 2016, continually survey the Universe for signals of extra-terrestrial life.

Breakthrough Listen Project


UC Observatories Lick Automated Planet Finder fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA.

Green Bank Radio Telescope, West Virginia, USA, now the center piece of the Green Bank Observatory(US), being cut loose by the National Science Foundation(US), supported by Breakthrough Listen Project, West Virginia University, and operated by the nonprofit Associated Universities, Inc.

CSIRO-Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (AU) Parkes Observatory [ Murriyang, the traditional Indigenous name] , located 20 kilometres north of the town of Parkes, New South Wales, Australia, 414.80m above sea level.

SKA SARAO Meerkat telescope(SA) 90 km outside the small Northern Cape town of Carnarvon, SA.

Newly added

University of Arizona Veritas Four Čerenkov telescopes A novel gamma ray telescope under construction at the CfA Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (US), Mount Hopkins, Arizona (US), altitude 2,606 m 8,550 ft. A large project known as the Čerenkov Telescope Array, composed of hundreds of similar telescopes to be situated at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory [Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias ](ES) in the Canary Islands and Chile at European Southern Observatory Cerro Paranal(EU) site. The telescope on Mount Hopkins will be fitted with a prototype high-speed camera, assembled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (US) and capable of taking pictures at a billion frames per second. Credit: Vladimir Vassiliev. _____________________________________________________________________________________

Meanwhile, Breakthrough Starshot is a proof-of-concept project involving sending a fleet of tiny centimetre-sized light-sail spacecraft to our nearest neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri. This project could lead to the development of Earth-based steerable lasers.

Breakthrough Starshot Initiative

Breakthrough Starshot

ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

SPACEOBS, the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory is located at 2450m above sea level, north of the Atacama Desert, in Chile, near to the village of San Pedro de Atacama and close to the border with Bolivia and Argentina.

SNO Sierra Nevada Observatory is a high elevation observatory 2900m above the sea level located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Granada Spain and operated maintained and supplied by IAC.

Teide Observatory,Teide National Park, Tenerife in Tenerife Spain, home of two 40 cm LCO,telescopes, Altitude 2,390 m (7,840 ft)

Observatori Astronòmic del Montsec (OAdM), located in the town of Sant Esteve de la Sarga (Pallars Jussà), 1,570 meters on the sea level.

Bayfordbury Observatory,approximately 6 miles from the main campus of the University of Hertfordshire.

These continuing and developing enterprises will inevitably deliver new technological advancements, meaning that the 2020s will be an exciting decade, indeed.

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The University of Melbourne (AU) is an Australian public research university located in Melbourne, Victoria. Founded in 1853, it is Australia’s second oldest university and the oldest in Victoria. Times Higher Education ranks Melbourne as 33rd in the world, while the Academic Ranking of World Universities places Melbourne 44th in the world (both first in Australia).

Melbourne’s main campus is located in Parkville, an inner suburb north of the Melbourne central business district, with several other campuses located across Victoria. Melbourne is a sandstone university and a member of the Group of Eight, Universitas 21 and the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. Since 1872 various residential colleges have become affiliated with the university. There are 12 colleges located on the main campus and in nearby suburbs offering academic, sporting and cultural programs alongside accommodation for Melbourne students and faculty.

Melbourne comprises 11 separate academic units and is associated with numerous institutes and research centres, including the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research and the Grattan Institute. Amongst Melbourne’s 15 graduate schools the Melbourne Business School, the Melbourne Law School and the Melbourne Medical School are particularly well regarded.

Four Australian prime ministers and five governors-general have graduated from Melbourne. Nine Nobel laureates have been students or faculty, the most of any Australian university.