By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Silver counters: "They are destroying one of the world's most well-known biological laboratories. Only they don't give ground science or earth science the same respect as they show astronomical sciences."
@body:Perched near the summit of Mount Graham, the Large Binocular Telescope would open new vistas of exploration for astronomers peering into the deepest regions of space. At the same time, the LBT would serve as a time machine, catapulting astronomers back billions of years to the infancy of the universe.
Because it takes years for light from the closest star to reach Earth, whatever images the LBT detects are but reflections of a galaxy, star or planet eons ago. The twin mirrors would detect images billions of years old.
The LBT is unique among all other optical telescopes now in use or on the drawing board. Since it is designed to work like giant binoculars, it is expected to generate extremely detailed images. This would prove useful in exploring emerging solar systems, studying the rotation of stars and planets and discovering new planets outside our solar system.
The LBT also would be mounted with the largest, most sensitive mirrors ever made. The extraordinary light-collecting ability of the mirrors would allow construction of a short, squat telescope rather than the traditional long tube with a mirror. Besides saving money on the building and operating costs, the "fast" mirrors would allow astronomers to look at much larger areas of space at one time, greatly increasing chances of discovering new planets.
"The whole character of using telescopes changes once you get the large area of sky," UofA astronomer Woolf says.
"I can't sit here and tell you what the new discoveries are going to be," says Buddy Powell, associate director of Steward Observatory. "But we believe it will play a very significant role in looking for planets, studying evolving galaxies and star formation."
Astronomers also would use the LBT to look at infrared light that is invisible to the eye. Infrared astronomy is a relatively new discipline that has attracted much attention in the last 20 years because it allows astronomers to see through interstellar dust and clouds. Astronomers hope to find planets in early stages of formation by using the LBT's infrared capabilities.
The LBT also offers one major, nonscientific advantage over competing large telescopes: It is much cheaper to build. The LBT price tag is $60 million to $70 million for its twin, 8.4-meter mirrors, mount and enclosure. By comparison, the Gemini Project, an international effort to build two separate 8.4-meter telescopes, one each in the northern and southern hemispheres, will cost $177 million. The key to the LBT's low cost is the mirrors, which UofA claims it can build for millions of dollars less than other designs.
UofA mirror lab director Roger Angel has developed a revolutionary technology that allows large, honeycombed mirrors to be built economically. The honeycomb mirrors are sturdy enough to hold their shapes to precise tolerances, yet are light enough to adapt to temperature changes that would cause distortions.
The face of the LBT's mirrors would be polished at the mirror lab to near perfection, to one-millionth of an inch of optimum design. To imagine this precision, picture a telescope mirror that stretches from Texas to Minnesota. The variance on the shape of the mirror would be no more than one-quarter inch.
Another important feature is proximity. Mount Graham's summit is a three-hour drive from UofA's Tucson campus. A paved road already existed most of the way up the mountain, which is isolated from city lights that have diminished the usefulness of UofA telescopes at Kitt Peak and Mount Hopkins. Technical factors also made Mount Graham a good perch, although not the best spot in the Southwest, for a major observatory.
These factors--location, access and technical features--make Mount Graham a much cheaper place to operate a premier observatory compared to the best U.S. site at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
While the LBT would be the backbone of the Mount Graham International Observatory, two other telescopes are nearing completion on Mount Graham's Emerald Peak. Germany's Max Planck Observatory and UofA are building an $8 million submillimeter telescope that is expected to break new ground in radio astronomy.
UofA also has teamed with the Vatican to build a 1.8-meter optical/infrared telescope that is serving as a prototype for the LBT.
While the Catholic Church has a history of ignoring science that rebuts religious doctrine, Vatican astronomers have been looking at the night skies for more than four centuries from an observatory near Rome. But light pollution chased the Jesuit astronomers out of Italy to UofA's Steward Observatory in 1981. When the chance came to build a small but powerful telescope on Mount Graham in the mid-1980s, the Vatican jumped. Beginning in September, Jesuit astronomers will scan the skies from Mount Graham. They hope to find new planets and signs of life. If such a discovery is made, the priests will be ready to launch the greatest of all missionary expeditions.
Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, told the London Daily Telegraph last fall that if the Vatican comes across life in space, the Church "would be obliged to address the question of whether extraterrestrials might be brought within the fold and baptized."