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Sizing Up the Stars

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2000
Bigger is better, some astronomers believe. That's why a gaggle of major universities and international science consortiums are competing for bragging rights to big science's largest and most powerful telescopes.

Some of the projects rely on design innovations yet to be invented and financing yet to be arranged. University budgets are hard-pressed to mirror sky-high telescope technology. For example, the name of the California Institute of Technology's proposed steerable, segmented 30-m telescope -- the California Extremely Large Telescope -- is up for grabs. "We hope that name will be replaced by the name of the donor who makes this possible," joked Thomas A. Tombrello, chairman of the division of physics, math and astronomy.

He estimated that the telescope -- a year away from the design phase -- would cost a minimum of $300 million to build. That's a pittance compared with NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope, with an array of cameras and spectrographs, intended to replace the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 at a cost of $2 billion. "A land-based telescope of a given size is much, much cheaper than what you could put in space," Tombrello said. "Both [telescopes] fit into very interesting niches."

What Tombrello has in mind is more bang for the buck, because the larger ground telescopes would allow astronomers to see farther into space with a wider field of view and greater sensitivity than with existing scopes such as Caltech's 10-m Keck Observatory. They also would be easier to repair and not require Hubble's long-distance repair crew.

Meanwhile, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in Cambridge, the universities of Arizona at Tucson and Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Institution of Washington are building what is being touted as the most powerful university telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. High in Chile's Atacama Desert, the estimated $70 million Magellan Twin Telescope project boasts two 6.5-m mirrors that will simultaneously observe large areas of the sky. It's scheduled for operation in the fall of 2002, a project spokesman said.

There's more. The University of Arizona and its partners, Arizona State University at Tempe, North Arizona University at Flagstaff, Ohio State University at Columbus and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, have joined Italian and German astronomers in the $84 million Large Binocular Telescope project. The two lenses, spanning 8.4 m and weighing 18 tons each, will provide a combined image designed to reduce the glare that surrounds stars while enhancing light from nearby planets. It is scheduled for full operation at Arizona's Mount Graham Observatory in Stafford by 2004, said spokesman Jeff Harrison.

Lund University in Sweden might build a 50-m telescope, according to recent reports. Topping them all, the European Southern Observatory in Parnal, Chile, has proposed a staggering 100-m telescope with the appropriate name of the OverWhelmingly Large telescope, construction of which would challenge the limits of adaptive optics.

The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
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