Monday, April 30, 2007

Telescope Shows History of Universe

[Source: Daniel Cuda] -- More than 400 years ago Galileo took a telescope used by sailors and pointed it toward the sky. Now scientists are using that same idea with binoculars - very big binoculars. Ohio State scientists have collaborated with scientists from Italy, Germany and the University of Arizona to build a $120 million Large Binocular Telescope. The project, hosted by the University of Arizona, sits 10,500 feet high on Mount Graham in Arizona. The LBT is the world's largest and most powerful telescope. It has two 27.6-foot mirrors that work in tandem and have image correcting electronics. Its ability to produce high resolution images is unmatched by any telescope on Earth or in orbit, said Thomas O'Brien, a mechanical engineer on the Multi-Object Double Spectrograph project.

"It's a gigantic telescope," said Richard Pogge, a professor in the OSU department of astronomy and principle investigator for the MODS project. "It can gather light 10 billion light years away. It almost acts as a time machine." The LBT gathers light from such great distances that it will show how the universe looked in its infancy. The images will help scientists determine the distance, chemical composition, movement and temperature of faraway stars and galaxies, Pogge said. "The LBT helps us learn how the universe went from formless to a lot of clusters," Pogge said. "It will also help us understand how our own Milky Way Galaxy was formed." OSU scientists and engineers are currently working on two MODS, which will provide resolution and imaging for the LBT. The MODS will split light as it is collected and allow scientists to determine the chemical compositions, temperatures and other important information about distant stars and galaxies. "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a spectrograph is worth a thousand pictures," Pogge said.

The MODS project is much larger than any previous astronomy department project. "The level of complexity, cost and overall physical size is much greater than anything we have worked on before," O'Brien said. Despite the MODS project being demanding and difficult for members of the department of astronomy, they are managing to have fun with it. "Since we are building the MODS for the LBT, and the color of it does not affect the function of the telescope, we are going to paint the sides scarlet and leave the frame gray," O'Brien said. Although the LBT will not be completely assembled until 2010, it received its first light Oct. 12, 2005 with one mirror and is currently capable to see using binocular light. [Photo source: Aaron Ceranski.]