Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

February 16, 2009

Host: Ted Simons

Science Special: Telescope

  • Richard Green, director of the Large Binocular Telescope, talks about the world's most powerful binocular telescope which resides on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona.
  • Richard Green - Director, LBT
Category: Science

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
In our next segment, you'll learn about the world's most powerful binocular telescope. It’s located right here in Arizona on Mount Graham. I'll talk to the director of the LBT, but first, here's more on the telescope.

Mike Sauceda:
At the top of Mount Graham in southern Arizona, the 8.4-meter mirror of the Large Binocular Telescope has been joined by its giant twin for the first binocular look into the deep cosmic past. Working side by side, the LBT mirrors have captured their first ever images of a spiral galaxy, lying 102 million light years from our Milky Way. The First Binocular Light inaugurates the unparalleled capabilities of the Large Binocular Telescope.

Richard Green:
The telescope is going to be used in two ways. Our first step is to use it as two 8-meter telescopes working in parallel analyzing the same field of view on the sky. The other way, to combine the two beams into one coherent picture achieving the resolution as though we had an almost 70-foot telescope and that will give us 10 times pictures sharper than Hubble.

Mike Sauceda:
Equal to its massive collecting power is an innovative design that supports changing suites of optical instruments. First up, a pair of wide field panoramic cameras used to capture these first light images. Here, the telescope works twice as fast by simultaneously recording the same image in separate spectra. These technologies are the first of many to come, giving astronomers unlimited options for discovery.

Richard Green:
We think this telescope’s going to discover really interesting systems of planets around other stars, map the dynamics of the inner regions of galaxies around massive black holes, map the outer solar system and understand how our solar system was formed, make a big dent in understanding the assembly of galaxies in both the early phase of the universe and in the middle age when the galaxies like our Milky Way came together.

Mike Sauceda:
The LBT was created by an international consortium which includes the University of Arizona, and other Arizona universities; the Instituto Nazionale di Astrofisica; LBT Beteiligungsgesellschaft; Ohio State University; and The Research Corporation. LBT’s mirrors are light, adapting quickly to changing temperatures. Computer-controlled mounts align telescope components during complex rotations, and adaptive optics produce distortion-free images. The Large Binocular Telescope will take astronomers where no telescope has gone before.

Richard Green:
I can't predict what the great discovery of this telescope is going to be. We will routinely be studying earth-like planets with oxygen atmospheres on a ten- to twenty-year time scale. Who knows? The best discoveries are the surprises and that's the real excitement of the world's best telescope.

Ted Simons:
And here now to tell us more about the telescope is Richard Green, director of the LBT. Good to have you here, thanks for joining us.

Richard Green:
I’m glad to be here.

Ted Simons:
We learned a lot in that piece, but I want to ask similar questions and then maybe go a little bit further. The basics, again: what makes this particular telescope so special?

Richard Green:
It has two of the world's largest telescope mirrors. Each one of them has light gathering power 10 times greater than Hubble. But because they’re mounted together on a common mount, and steered together, and point to the same place in the sky, that makes them unique. They can make a huge field of view in sharp focus.

Ted Simons:
And you're talking eventually 10 times as sharp as Hubble?

Richard Green:

Ted Simons:
Wow. Does that make Hubble obsolete? Is this the new golden age for mountaintop telescopes?

Richard Green:
Certainly it will be a new era for these giant telescopes and this is the pathfinder for the next generation of giant telescopes. A telescope in orbit still does unique things. It captures radiation blocked by the earth's atmosphere, so they complement each other.

Ted Simons:
What kinds of images are you seeing now, and plan to see in the next few years, and what do you plan to learn from those images?

Richard Green:
We’re celebrating the very scientific beginning of this as an observatory. Right now we're taking pairs of panoramas, of wide field views of the sky. The science that people are doing now ranges from mapping the solar system out near Pluto to discovering the distant quasars formed just after time began.

Ted Simons:
It sounds like this is a work in progress. What kind of changes need to be done?

Richard Green:
We have lots of steps to go. It was a major achievement to get the two mirrors to point to the same place and track together. Now we have to tune it to be 100 times more precise. Then we can lock up the light waves that come from each side and that's going to give us 10 times sharper picture.

Ted Simons:
That sounds incredible. Real quickly: the history of this telescope?

Richard Green:
It was conceived back in the early 1980s as one of the ultimate achievements of the Pyrex mirrors that were developed at the University of Arizona down in Tucson. As time went along, this concept became more sophisticated. They realized they'd have to compensate for the blur of the earth's atmosphere, which we do with a large mirror that’s 36 inches in diameter and about the thickness of a hair. It's like a tissue, and we change its shape a thousand times a second to cancel the atmospheric blur. All of these things developed with time. As you know, there was a period of controversy about Mount Graham as the site. That was resolved in favor of the conservatory. And in 1998 construction began in earnest and 10 years later we’re enjoying the scientific fruits of all that effort.

Ted Simons:
And this is an international collaboration, is it not?

Richard Green:
It truly is. Half of the funding of the telescope and half of the observing time goes to Europe. The Italian National Astronomy effort has a quarter share and a consortium of German institutes that represent German national astronomy also have a quarter share.

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