I’ll occasionally read pieces about the progress of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) which is I believe in the planning stage currently. There’s also been speculation about a future 100 m aperture telescope, the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL). After going through the history of the largest optical telescopes by aperture and doing a little work in Excel, I came up with this:
This is the kind of thing I like, an historical exponential graph about technology. The kind of thing that is Ray Kurzweil’s bread and butter. Going purely based off of historical trends, I’m pessimistic about seeing either of those great astronomical projects in the near term. The trend line posits a TMT around 2060 whereas I seem to recall talk of a 2018 completion date. It’s no wonder the OWL got canned: the trend line puts it at around 2150. Certainly with a huge influx of talent and funds these dates could be pushed up, but I have a sinking suspicion that the trend seems so relatively smooth for a reason, and that any major attempted deviation from it would be very costly. It wouldn’t be too crazy to see a TMT in the mid-2020s, but it would still be a big break with history.
I hasten to emphasize again that this analysis is based purely off of the historical trend line. What gives it a sense of legitimacy is that it’s a history of 400 years through the turbulent modern revolution (hell, a large part of the scientific revolution is based off of advances in astronomical telescopes) that seems remarkably steady. I would be very happy to have these predictions be proven far too pessimistic, of course.