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Western Slope Skies: Gran Telescopio Canarias

The Gran Telescopio at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma, Canary Islands
The Gran Telescopio at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma, Canary Islands

When we look up at the night sky, unfortunately our view of the universe is limited by what our eyes can see. We are lucky if we get to see a clear sky, even more a shooting star, and if we are very lucky, we might get a clear view of the Milky Way. But today we are going to talk about something that has been able to see so far out in the universe that it can glimpse deeply into the past. This is the case for the current largest optical telescope in the world, the Gran Telescopio Canarias. With a mirror that has a diameter of 34.1 feet, there are a few things this incredible piece of engineering cannot see. Scientists from all around the globe come together to work with this technology in The Canary Islands of Spain.

The telescope’s most important discovery to date has been finding the farthest black hole located at the center of a rare type of galaxy. All galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their center, but active galaxies emit an extremely energetic and rare form of light called gamma rays. Only 1% of galaxies emit gamma rays. When matter from the galaxy spills onto the black hole it heats up to extreme temperatures and emits gamma rays in jets. If the jet of radiation points in our direction, like a lighthouse, we see intense amounts of light.

Since the speed of light is limited, the further we look in distance, the further back in time we see.. This discovery is groundbreaking because it went further than ever before, about800 million years earlier than the previous record, now set when the universe was less than 2 billion years old. This discovery challenges our idea of how galaxies evolve and interact with their central black holes. It will change our views of cosmic evolution as a whole.

The world’s largest optical telescope, Gran Telescopio Canarias, is a perfect example of a great international team and effort that brought us one step closer to understanding the beginnings of our universe.

You’ve been listening to Western Slope Skies, produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community Radio. This feature was written and recorded by Homero Aybar Freixa, an astronomy student of Dr. Catherine Whiting at Colorado Mesa University.