Sensitive telescopes: Climate change clouds the view of the stars

Sciences astronomy

How does climate change affect stargazing

A laser beam travels from the VLT telescope to the starry night sky A laser beam travels from the VLT telescope to the starry night sky

The laser beam from the VLT telescope is used to correct the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere from the images

Source: ESO

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Dry, clear, cool: Telescopes need ideal site conditions to be able to accurately measure the universe. But researchers are now sounding the alarm. Because climate change affects weather conditions – and thus can affect astronomical observations.

BIn the consequences of climate change, one thinks more about weather extremes, strong winds, or floods than about observing space. But astrophysicists now complain that changing weather conditions are even affecting researchers’ view of the universe. In the Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics, an international team of scientists led by the University of Bern warns that astronomical observations using ground-based telescopes are becoming increasingly difficult because the quality of measurements depends largely on local weather conditions. According to the researchers’ study, these changes will change negatively as a result of global climate change.

It is clear that observing the stars is better in clear weather than in cloudy weather. Clouds and high humidity in general also have a negative effect on the quality of the notes. The higher the atmospheric temperatures at which light from space must pass on its way to a ground-based telescope, the more likely the air turbulence will disrupt the straight path of light rays.

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It is no coincidence that optical telescopes are often located in the desert or on a mountain, so that the air is as dry and clear as possible and the path through the atmosphere is as short as possible. And the flash of warm air for years has been compensated for by so-called adaptive optics in particularly powerful telescopes. An artificial guide star is evoked in the sky with a laser beam and wavefront disturbances from atmospheric turbulence are recorded.

These disturbances are then compensated for by moving or distorting the telescope’s mirrors, thus improving the image quality. But every technology has its limitations – and if average air temperatures tend to be high, this degrades image quality. However, higher temperatures also mean the air can hold more moisture. This also interferes with observing distant celestial bodies.

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In their study, researchers from the University of Bern, ETH Zurich, ESO’s European Southern Observatory and the University of Reading came to the conclusion that climate change around the world will lead to a deterioration in observing conditions for telescopes. Major astronomical observatories from Hawaii to the Canary Islands, Chile, Mexico, South Africa and Australia will be affected by rising air temperatures and increased water content in the atmosphere.

There are no simple solutions to ensure the quality of measurements made with telescopes. Since climate change will have different effects in different regions of the world – and this can be predicted with the help of climate models – the researchers suggest that projected climate changes should at least be taken into account when building new telescopes.

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Although telescopes are usually several decades old, atmospheric conditions are only taken into account when selecting a site for a short period of time. These past five years are usually too short to capture long-term trends, let alone map future changes due to global warming,” says lead author of the study, Caroline Haslibacher of the University of Bern.

But it’s not just climate change that worries astronomers. The growing number of low-flying satellites in Earth’s orbit is also disrupting the night sky and exploration of the universe. SpaceX alone wants to put more than 30,000 small satellites into orbit. Each of them can reflect light – and thus generate interference signals. Since satellites exchange data with ground stations via radio waves, radio astronomers are particularly affected by the boom of small satellites.

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Astronomers have called for international agreements to protect the night sky as a human cultural asset and research object for years. They don’t get much interest in this. And astronomers certainly won’t be able to stop climate change.

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