Friday, March 7, 2008

Giant telescope opens both eyes

The world's most powerful optical telescope has opened both of its eyes.

Astronomers at the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in Arizona have released the first images taken using its two giant 8m diameter mirrors.

The detailed pictures show a spiral galaxy located 102 million light-years away from the Milky Way.

LBT has been 20 years in the making but promises to allow astronomers to probe the Universe further back in time and in more detail than ever before.

"The amount of time and work that was put into this project to reach the point where we are today is immense,"

said LBT Director Richard Green.

"To see the telescope operational with both mirrors is a great feeling."

The $120m (£60m) telescope uses two mirrors in tandem to maximise the amount of light it gathers, which allows astronomers to look deep into the Universe.

Using two 8.4 m (27ft) mirrors will give LBT the equivalent light-gathering capacity of a single 11.8m (39ft) instrument and the resolution of a 22.8m (75ft) telescope.

Impressive detail

The resolution is 10 times greater than the space-based Hubble telescope, which has a 2.4m (8ft) mirror.

"The images that this telescope will produce will be like none seen before,"

said Professor Peter Strittmatter of the University of Arizona.

The first pictures are false-colour images of the spiral galaxy NGC 2770. The pictures show what is a flat disc of stars and glowing gas.

The images - which take advantage of the telescope's ability to view the same point in space with multiple wavelengths of light - emphasise different features of the galaxy.

Combining ultraviolet and green light shows up clumpy regions of newly formed hot stars in the spiral arms, whilst a combination of red wavelengths highlights older, cooler stars.

The images were taken on 11 and 12 January but have only just now been released.

The LBT is located on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona. It achieved "first light" with one mirror on 12 October 2005 when it imaged a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Andromeda.