Lowell Observatory and Discovery Communications broke ground on the Discovery Channel's Telescope (DCT), July 12, after nearly a decade of work on the design and the search for an appropriate site.
The telescope will be applied to a wide variety of research topics covering the gamut of modern astrophysics and planetary science.
"With this new telescope, Lowell astronomers will be equipped to continue cutting-edge research well into our institution's second century," said Bob Millis, director of Lowell Observatory. "Through the magnificent programming capabilities of our partner, Discovery Communications, we will see the results of that research brought into living rooms and classrooms around the world."
Among the telescope's numerous scientific objectives, the search for near-Earth asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, and planets orbiting stars will be substantially advanced.
The DCT will make it possible to identify potentially devastating asteroids much sooner than the technology currently available. Similar results are expected in the search for Kuiper Belt Objects, a sun-centered swarm of icy bodies extending from Neptune of which more than 1,000 have been identified.
The objects range in size from a large asteroid to the mass of the planet Pluto.
DCT will also be used to investigate binary star systems and circumstellar dust disks -- believed to be the birthplaces of planets.
The 14-foot telescope ultimately will have a significantly wider field of vision, giving it the ability to survey the sky at nearly eight times the capacity of the largest existing survey telescope.
Unlike other pure survey telescopes, DCT was designed for versatility. It will be able to convert to an alternative optical configuration that will allow it to be highly effective during bright phases of the moon.
When astronomers look for a site to view the universe from, it is all about location, location, location. They seek visual baselines that will help them achieve extraordinarily sharp images against a black background.
The telescope will be located just north of the U.S. Forest Service Happy Jack Ranger Station in the Coconino Forest.
"This site compares to the best in the United States," District Forest Ranger Larry Sears said. The telescope represents the second century of the highest and best use of the land Sears added.
The partnership between Lowell and the Forest Service dates back to 1910 when Congress granted Lowell 640 acres for scientific purpose.
The support facilities for the telescope will be located at the ranger station in what Sears described as a win-win partnership -- both parties will share in the costs and benefit from the workshop.
Even though the DCT will be used for research purposes only, Marsha McClendon said she and other summer residents of nearby Mule Park are excited to have such an important part of science in their backyard.
She was joined by her daughter and 7-year-old grandson, Adain, for the groundbreaking. Adain will be in his early teens in 2010 when the telescope is expected to be fully operational.
The DCT will have real-time capability, allowing the images it acquires to be simultaneously broadcast to people around the world.
Student filmmakers from Northern Arizona University have already started documenting the building of the new telescope.
Amateur stargazer Frances McAllister, a life member of Lowell Observatory's board, is thrilled about the new telescope.
"I was persuaded by my husband in 1936 to take a course in astronomy," she said. "It changed what I wanted to do in the evenings for the rest of my life."
Stephen Reverend, vice president of production and special projects for the Discovery Channel described his colleagues on the project as forward-thinking optimists with the single purpose of gazing at the stars.
Updates on the project will air on the Discovery network's Science Channel and will be available online at www.lowell.edu.