Thursday, March 02, 2006

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Telescopes 'worthless' by 2050

By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

Owl, Eso
Ground astronomy could be compromised if trends continue, experts say
Ground-based astronomy could be impossible in 40 years because of pollution from aircraft exhaust trails and climate change, an expert says.

Aircraft condensation trails - known as contrails - can dissipate, becoming indistinguishable from other clouds.

If trends in cheap air travel continue, says Professor Gerry Gilmore, the era of ground astronomy may come to an end much earlier than most had predicted.

Aircraft along with climate change will contribute to increased cloud cover.

You either give up your cheap trips to Majorca, or you give up astronomy. You can't do both
Gerry Gilmore, University of Cambridge

The timescale is based on extrapolating air traffic growth figures. The BBC has learned that the calculations were made as part of preparations for an upcoming observatory project called the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

The ELT is intended to probe planets around nearby stars and look for extremely faint objects in the Universe.

Vision impaired

"It is already clear that the lifetime of large ground-based telescopes is finite and is set by global warming," Professor Gilmore, from Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, told reporters recently in London.

"There are two factors. Climate change is increasing the amount of cloud cover globally. The second factor is cheap air travel.

"You get these contrails from the jets. The rate at which they're expanding in terms of their fractional cover of the stratosphere is so large that if predictions are right, in 40 years it won't be worth having telescopes on Earth anymore - it's that soon.

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