Deeper space coming into focus
The Large Binocular Telescope -- the world's most powerful optical telescope -- is dedicated as construction nears completion
|U.Va. astronomers will soon be using the Large Binocular Telescope (right) to conduct research, although it won’t be fully completed until late next year. The telescope, located on Mt. Graham near Safford, Ariz., will be the world’s most powerful optical telescope.
By Fariss Samarrai
U.Va. astronomers will soon be able to peer deeper into space than ever before using the Large Binocular Telescope.
A ceremony Oct. 15 marked the dedication of the telescope on Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz. U.Va. is a member of a consortium of universities and research institutions that are part of the LBT project.
When construction of the telescope is completed late next year, the LBT will be the world’s most powerful optical telescope, surpassing the observational capabilities of even the Hubble Space Telescope.
Only one of the telescope’s two 27-foot mirrors is in place, but after construction astronomers will be able to use the telescope to conduct limited research by next spring. Next summer, the second mirror will be installed, and the telescope should be fully operational near the end of next year.
“The mirrors are so big and marvelous,” said Robert Rood, chairman of the astronomy department, who began his involvement with the project four years ago, and encouraged the University to join the LBT project through the research consortium. “It’s so exciting to see this coming together. All of the pieces were made in different parts of the world, and soon we’ll be doing science on the LBT.”
U.Va. astronomers already are enjoying the benefits of membership in the telescope consortium. As members, they have access to three
other large telescopes that already exist in Arizona and Chile and are part of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory complex.
Astronomers constantly write research proposals to gain observational time on telescopes. Only about 20 percent to 30 percent of all proposals earn observational time on the world’s biggest telescopes. As a member of the LBT consortium, U.Va. is guaranteed varying amounts of time on several member telescopes internationally. Astronomers also are allowed to trade time on different telescopes depending on the types of projects they are pursuing.
U.Va. astronomers Rood, Roger Chevalier, Steven Majewski, Craig Sarazin and Trinh Thuan already have used these telescopes for investigations into the formation of the Milky Way, the structure of dwarf galaxies, clusters of galaxies and brown dwarfs.
“As a result of our consortium membership, we’re forming more collaborations with our colleagues at other institutions,” Rood said. “And having guaranteed access to some of the world’s best telescopes allows us to pursue investigations that were not available before. It’s great fun to think about the different ways we can do science now.”
Rood noted that, as a result of joining the telescope consortium, the astronomy department has gained prestige and is recruiting top-quality faculty and graduate students.
A portion of a $10 million gift from Frank and Wynnette Levinson of Palo Alto, Calif., made U.Va.’s participation in the consortium possible. Frank Levinson studied astronomy at U.Va. and earmarked that money for the astronomy department and its long-time priority to join a large optical telescope project.
When finished, the LBT will overcome many of the technological and physical barriers that have limited ground-based astronomy.
Astronomers say its two giant mirrors, positioned side-by-side on a single mount spanning 74 feet, will give a deeper and clearer view of the cosmos than has ever before been seen. By combining light beams from the two mirrors, the telescope can collect light at the same rate as a single mirror 38 feet across. Currently, the world’s largest single-mirror telescope is 33 feet across.