More Powerful Telescopes on Horizon

ByABC News
October 3, 2000, 9:03 AM

Oct. 4 -- Astronomers are never satisfied.

It isnt enough to study objects in the distant sky that are so faint they elude even the most powerful telescopes in the world. It just keeps their juices flowing, making them yearn for bigger and better instruments.

In a typically ambitious fashion, a group of astronomers have proposed building a telescope 10 times more powerful than each of the twin Keck Telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the current global leaders.

The Dream Machine

This monster would have a primary mirror 30-meters (nearly 100 feet) in diameter, compared to the Kecks 10-meter mirrors, and it would have such high resolving power that it might even be able to directly detect planets around other stars. It would have the latest in adaptive optics that would remove distortion caused by the Earths atmosphere.

The cost? At least half-billion bucks, and these folks dont know where that money would come from.

It sounds like the kind of bold dream that could easily be dismissed as the fanciful thinking of a few would-be visionaries, except for one thing. These are the same people who created the Kecks, and a lot of folks thought they couldnt do that, either.

The California Extremely Large Telescope (CELT) is in the early planning stages at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology, the partnership that conceived, designed, built and operates the Keck Observatories on Mauna Kea.

Like the Kecks, the primary mirror would be an array of individual hexagonal mirrors that would be so precisely controlled they would each act as single mirrors. Each keck uses 36 segments. The new monster would use 1,080 segments.

The Kecks also use a deformable mirror separate from the primary mirror to remove atmospheric distortion, a technology called adaptive optics. The Keck systems use 250 tiny pistons, called actuators, to control the mirrors shape, flexing it back and forth ever so slightly to offset any distortion caused by the air above the telescope. The new adaptive optics system would need about 5,000 actuators, and thats beyond the capability of current technology, according to Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz.