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Arizona Telescope Sees Deep into the Cosmos

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Arizona Telescope Sees Deep into the Cosmos


Arizona Telescope Sees Deep into the Cosmos

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The world has a new telescope and it's a whopper. It has a modest name, The Large Binocular Telescope, but it can probe deeper into the cosmos than any instrument before it. It's twice as big as the next largest telescope on Earth, and has 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

NPR's Ted Robbins visited the LBT high on a mountain in southern Arizona.

TED ROBBINS: Like musicians, astronomers go to work when the sun sets. In this case, though, their instrument is inside a 17-story building on top of Mt. Graham and it weighs 580 tons.

The instrument is so well-tuned that even when the massive dome slides open for the night, it's nearly silent.

And now, the telescope is moving, it's rotating up.

Mr. JOHN LITTLE (Telescope Manager, Mt. Graham International Observatory): The only thing you hear is the elevator in the background.

ROBBINS: Literally, you can hear nothing.

Mr. LITTLE: Pretty unremarkable.

ROBBINS: Pretty unremarkable? Maybe to you.

As observatory manager, John Little has been watching construction here for more than a decade. But just a few weeks ago, the LBT began seeing with both its eyes. We're standing under them, two mirrors mounted in metal honeycombs, each nearly 28 feet in diameter. They can be used separately to photograph, say, the same object through red and blue portions of the spectrum. Or they can be calibrated together to form the equivalent of the enormous 56-foot telescope.

We walked down a few levels to the control room.

Professor RICHARD POGGE (Astronomy, Ohio State University): Well, I'm Richard Pogge. I'm a professor of Astronomy at the Ohio State University.

ROBBINS: Pogge types in coordinates for this night's viewing. He and a half dozen others sit in a room filled with computer screens. There is a universe to look at, but time is limited. So scientists submit proposals for committees to choose from. One of the first for tonight, the Kuiper Belt, on the edge of the solar system, about 2.7 billion miles from Earth.

Prof. POGGE: This is an ostensibly blank part of the sky that's looking for Kuiper Belt objects - small ice balls out in the orbits between Neptune and Pluto and beyond.

ROBBINS: How small? Well, Pluto is roughly 1,400 miles wide. The LBT can see ice balls in the same region that are just a couple of miles wide. The cameras take an exposure - a pretty long one, five minutes - and then on screen the image is revealed. It looks like a field of stars. But take the same pictures six nights in a row and if you know what you're looking for you can see the ice balls moving. In fact, with the data this telescope gathers, Richard Pogge says you can see a lot more.

Prof. POGGE: How far away it is? What it is made of? How fast its moving away from us? Is it rotating? What is this mass - dot, dot, dot.

Professor PETER GARNAVICH (Astrophysics, Notre Dame University): It's moving yearly, said(ph) yearly, yes.

ROBBINS: That's Peter Garnavich from Notre Dame University. He is helping focus the LBT on another object, no small task given the instrument's complexity. Garnavich is interested in a supernova that exploded a few nights earlier, a massive dying star collapsing into a black hole.

Prof. GARNAVICH: The star just happened to die and its jet was pointed at us and we can see it through most of the way across the universe.

ROBBINS: The screen shows a large mass with a plume coming from it. Garnavich wants to learn how energy from the dying star decays over time. By looking at objects like this — halfway across the universe and back in time — these astronomers hope the LBT will answer some fundamental questions.

Prof. GARNAVICH: Where do we come from, how did we get here, where are we going? Astronomy's one of the few ways we can answer that.

ROBBINS: Plus, like playing music or making art, it's just plain fun, especially with a $120-million instrument.

Prof. GARNAVICH: It's kind of a privilege to be at the telescope doing this while other people are out, you know, working their day jobs.

ROBBINS: Over the next few years, many more devices will be added to the large binocular telescope to enhance its capabilities. It should be enough to keep astronomers working happily through the night for decades.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

NORRIS: And you can see one of the first images from the large binocular telescope at our Web site,


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