Tv Audience Interest In Science Makes Telescope Possible

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The steel beams and concrete that will support the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States are being shaped by the hands of men on a hilltop in the Coconino Forest near Happy Jack.

The Discovery Channel Telescope is a joint project of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and Discovery Communications, Inc. Discovery plans to create programming from research being done using the telescope.

Robert Millis, director of Lowell Observatory, hopes scientists will be able to look through the telescope for the first time in 2009 -- a process known as "first light." After that, adjustments will take another six months to a year.

A similar telescope in Chile saw first light two years ago and is only now operational due to unexpected problems.

"We think we are learning from difficulties they had," Millis said.

DCT is still in the design phase of the telescope mount.

The dome to be placed on top of the mount will be 72 feet in diameter and an additional five stories tall.

The instrument package for the telescope is approximately the size and weight of a Suburban.

The telescope will be a tight fit, said Lowell's DCT project manager, Byron Smith.

Once the telescope is up and running, Lowell Observatory astronomers will be the sole users of DCT which is expected to generate a terabyte of data per night.

Discovery and Lowell Observatory would like to see a university partner with them.

"If and when a university or universities join and contribute to the cost of the project, then their staff and students will have access (to the telescope)," Millis said.

A university partnership would probably bring "technical expertise that we don't already have in-house," Millis said.

Faculty and students at the University of Arizona in Tucson were hired to complete the mirror on the project.

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Standing on the telescope mount, project manager Byron Smith explains future plans for the fifth largest telescope in the United States.

While the foundation and dome are being built, optical scientists at the university have custody of the 14-foot in diameter, 4-inch high mirror that will be the observatory's primary eye on the sky.

In the design of telescopes, thickness of the lens makes all the difference when it comes to clarity.

"The thinness of the mirror helps it cool rapidly at night reducing heat waves that would blur the images," Smith said.

Figuring out these details is an exciting challenge for the University of Arizona team.

"It's a great opportunity to apply our advanced processing and testing technology," said Martin Valente, director of the University of Arizona's College of Optical Sciences (OSC) optical fabrication and engineering facility.

"There are only six places in the world that could finish this mirror," Millis said.

Valente's engineering team has produced very complex optical systems, including large optics for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

The DCT mirror was cast and fused by Corning, Inc. in Canton, N.Y. to Lowell Observatory's exacting specifications. It is made of Corning's ultra-low-expansion (ULE(r)) glass.

It will take the University of Arizona engineering team about six months to make a support structure that holds the mirror in the telescope. The system will ensure the mirror doesn't flex under the force of grinding and polishing.

Grinding the mirror to get it closer to the ideal shape will take about five months.

Polishing the mirror and "figuring" it -- which is the final stage of polishing that will make the mirror accurate to within a fraction of a wavelength of light or a few millionths of an inch -- will probably take another 15 to 18 months, Valente said.

Once installed, the primary mirror of the telescope will be configured for fine focus with a wide field of vision of 2 degrees (the full moon is 1/2 a degree).

Another mirror, which weighs 500 pounds, will be added to the telescope to increase its magnification using infrared and polar imagery.

"I'm really pleased to see this major contract being let in Arizona," Millis said.

-- To reach Carol La Valley call 474-5251 ext. 122 or e-mail clavalley@payson.com.

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