Originally Published: July 22, 2012 9:08 p.m.
FLAGSTAFF - The northern Arizona observatory where Pluto was discovered has answered the question of whether it would remain active in research or become a museum.
Lowell Observatory and science cable giant Discovery Communications are showing off a $53 million telescope that will help build on the observatory's major astronomical discoveries, including the rings of Uranus and the first evidence that the universe is expanding. The so-called Discovery Channel Telescope, with its 4.3-meter mirror, is the fifth largest in the continental U.S.
"It's really the next frontier of solar system research," observatory director Jeffrey Hall said. "We can't see there with our own current telescope even though they are in our celestial doorstep."
The first light images taken with the telescope in May were unveiled at a private, sold-out gala Saturday in Flagstaff featuring Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, as the keynote speaker. The Discovery Channel has been documenting the path to the telescope's unveiling and is scheduled to air a feature on it in early September.
Researchers at Lowell plan to use the telescope to look for near-Earth asteroids, planets orbiting other stars and Kuiper Belt Objects, a collection of space debris and icy bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune.
It's been 40 years since Lowell added a large telescope to its collection of instruments. Lowell has one of the largest telescopes available for public use, a 32-foot antique that's 24 inches in diameter housed inside a rotating dome. A separate site has four larger telescopes for research.
Percival Lowell founded the observatory in 1894 to look at Mars and other celestial objects. Pluto's discovery there came in 1930.
The new Discovery Telescope is housed about 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff at Happy Jack. Lowell also purchased a ranch nearby to house an astronomer's dormitory and as a place to host future star parties with the Discovery Channel.
Whereas most astronomers have to compete for a few nights on major telescopes, the new telescope will give astronomers at Lowell near-constant access to the dark sky above northern Arizona. Other projects likely will include the study of stars, brown dwarfs, galaxies and planets outside of the solar system.
For the three universities that have partnered with Lowell on the project, the telescope gives their astronomers guaranteed time for research that they can leverage in grant proposals.
"It's a game-changer in a lot of ways. ... This class of telescopes - 4 meters - really allows you to peer much deeper in the universe or at fainter things in the nearby universe," said Andrew West, an assistant professor of astronomy at Boston University.
Sylvain Veilleux, the optical director of the University of Maryland's astronomy department, plans to use the telescope to study galaxies and their black holes. The university also is building a $3 million instrument for the telescope in partnership with NASA to research gamma ray bursts, which Veilleux said would allow a quick response by astronomers in observing the explosions that fade away within a few minutes.
"This instrument will give us more detailed, useful information on these targets," he said.
Students and astronomers at the University of Toledo in Ohio have access to a 1-meter telescope on their campus, but it's relatively small and not in as good a location as Lowell's, said Karen Bjorkman, dean of the school's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
By partnering with Lowell, she said the university can plan its research much farther into the future.
"This will really give us a real advantage for our students to use cutting edge technology," she said.