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Mon, June 17

Expanding our horizons New telescope outside Flagstaff will keep researchers on the cutting edge

Little more than two weeks ago, Lowell Observatory and Discovery Communications broke ground on a remote plot of land in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff to build what will become the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States.

Expected to be among the most sophisticated ground-based telescopes of its size, the 4.2-meter Discovery Channel Telescope will send Flagstaff’s 111-year-old Lowell Observatory into a new era of astronomical research.

Discovery Communications, the telescope’s sponsor, will also benefit from the instrument, which is expected to be operational in 2009 and eventually provide information for programming on the Discovery Channel.

Lowell Observatory director Bob Millis said erecting a telescope of this caliber is crucial to his complex’s “success” and in keeping it competitive with the invaluable work of academic institutions across the United States.

“There’s been a remarkable burst of giant telescopes that incorporate a lot of technology and perform better with sharper images,” Millis said. “A number of research areas have opened up for us to participate in, but our existing telescopes were not appropriate — so we embarked on this effort.”

This July 12, workers officially began phase one of the telescope’s construction at a cost of $35 million.

Builders of the telescope, located 45 miles east-southeast of Flagstaff and north of the U.S. Forest Service’s Happy Jack Ranger Station on Coconino County Road 3 in the Coconino National Forest, received a special-use permit to situate it there.

Millis said that for a decade or more the observatory scanned northern Arizona for a suitable telescope site. But not until 2001 did the site search pick up steam.

“We tested that site extensively through 2003 on more than 100 nights of viewing,” he said. “It was one of the best locations for sharpness of image and darkness of the sky.”

Currently, scientists are refining the design of the telescope’s major optical and mechanical components. This September, Corning, Inc., in Canton, N.Y., will complete the telescope’s 14-foot-diameter primary mirror blank.

“The primary mirror’s been in production at Corning for two years,” Millis said. “Its ULE (Ultra-Low Expansion) glass doesn’t respond to changes in temperature, allowing it to keep its dimensions and shape.”

Later this summer, construction of the telescope’s building will commence, now that the access road to the Happy Jack site has been finished.

Millis said that his observatory first imagined erecting a telescope such as this about a decade ago after the facility’s centennial celebration.

Lowell astronomers plan to operate the telescope from their home base in Flagstaff through high-powered, high-speed Internet technology.

“If the telescope and home base are adequately equipped, the telescope can operate effectively,” Millis said.

Millis’ mission is to share the research derived from the powerful telescope via Discovery Channel programming that will spread new discoveries, data and information to millions of people around the world on the TV screen.

Lowell astronomers will use the telescope to speed up the search and identification of life-threatening near-Earth asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, and planets orbiting other stars.

More than 1,000 Kuiper Belt Objects have been found and can range from large asteroids to those potentially comparable in size to the planet Pluto. In 1992, scientists first discovered objects in the Kuiper Belt — a sun-centered swarm of orbiting icy bodies extending from Neptune to as yet unknown distances.

Discovery Communications said that the 4.2-meter telescope will have a wider field of view than any currently existing telescope of its size, “giving it the unprecedented ability to survey the sky at nearly eight times the capacity of the largest existing survey

telescope.”

When the telescope is converted to its alternative optical configuration, it can be highly effective during bright phases of the moon.

Science students and the educated population as a whole will benefit greatly from the telescope, which has the capability to explore our solar system and the universe beyond.

The telescope also has real-time features, allowing images that the instrument obtains to be simultaneously broadcast to people around the globe.

With the new telescope’s assistance, Lowell astronomers will eventually explore new areas of research and conduct several existing programs more efficiently.

Founded in 1894 in Flagstaff, Lowell Observatory was the first astronomical observatory in Arizona. The observatory is credited with discovering the Milky Way galaxy’s smallest planet, Pluto, in 1930.

Today, the observatory’s 18 astronomers use both ground- and space-based telescopes to pursue a broad range of astronomical research.

Contact the reporter at

dcook@prescottaz.com

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