Telescope will bring science into focus

5:01 PM, Jul 19, 2012   |    comments
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Asteroids hurtling past Earth, comets burning in the solar wind and frozen worlds whirling at the edge of the solar system. Sounds more TV show than science? Get ready for both.

The storied Lowell Observatory is unveiling its $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope, aimed at bringing a few of those finds, and more, into the view of astronomers, but also into your living room.

"Hopefully we will find interesting, provocative, thought-provoking things that we can share with the world," says astronomer Lisa Prato of Lowell Observatory located outside Flagstaff, Ariz. Famed as the site where Pluto was discovered in 1930, the observatory will step into the 21st century with the opening of the 14-foot telescope, the fifth-largest nationwide.

The Discovery Channel plans an early September documentary on the telescope, which will be officially unveiled Saturday at an observatory gala . "The telescope really puts the observatory back in the first ranks," says Villanova University astronomer Ed Guinan, who heads a science outreach committee of the International Astronomical Union.

Other telescopes are much larger, such as the two 33-foot-wide Keck telescopes atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea, but the new telescope offers advantages over older, tightly-scheduled observatories. "Scientifically, the telescope is amazingly flexible, which should lead to a lot of discoveries ," Guinan says. "From the point of reaching the public, the idea of working with a cable channel that reaches all over the world is wonderful."

In particular, the new telescope aims to uncover the icy dwarf planets beyond Pluto and eyeball the asteroids and comets closer to Earth, hot topics in astronomy. Prato hopes to use the telescope to examine dusty disks surrounding nearby young stars, returning to view them repeatedly with the added time available on the flexible new telescope.

An exclusive "first light" image from the telescope shared with USA TODAY captures the "Sombrero" galaxy a type of nearby, dusty galaxy perfect for viewing with the new telescope./ "We wanted to find a way to 'give back' a little," says Discovery Channel chief John Hendricks, an observatory advisory board member who contributed $6 million of his and his wife's own money to the telescope, on top of $10 million donated by the cable channel. Known for its science programs, the channel will receive first dibs on publicizing discoveries made at the telescope.

Astronomers hotly compete for telescope time at observatories, and Hendricks, an avid astronomy advocate, saw a chance to help science and the observatory founded by Mars astronomer Percival Lowell in 1894, he says. "I think it is an excellent and creative idea," says Caltech astronomer Mike Brown.

"There are many dwarf planets, near Earth objects, and who-knows-what-else still out there to be discovered, and this telescope is specialized to do just that," says Brown, who headed a Palomar Observatory team that found Eris, a distant dwarf planet about the size of Pluto in 2005.

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY


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