Eyes to the sky

May 10, 2009

Sitting high on a mountain in Arizona, the LBT has been attracting top astronomers to Ohio State and helping to elevate the department's reputation.

After 20 years in the making, the Department of Astronomy at The Ohio State University proudly unveiled its visionary Large Binocular Telescope, or LBT, the world’s largest optical telescope.

Located approximately 125 miles northeast of Tucson in Safford, Ariz., the LBT sits more than 10,000 feet above sea level on top of the Emerald Peak summit and is housed in the Mount Graham International Observatory.

Combining size with next-generation design, the LBT presents Ohio State’s astronomers and partners throughout the United States, Italy, and Germany with an unrivaled opportunity to explore the universe.

“In recent years, we have learned so much about the history and the details of the universe,” said Christopher Kochanek, Ohio State professor of astronomy and an Ohio Eminent Scholar of Observational Cosmology. “We’re trying to consistently expand our understanding of how the galaxies and stars are assembled, the role of black holes in the universe, and the existence of new solar systems.”

The LBT will advance our understanding of the universe using two huge mirrors, each measuring 27.5 feet across, built into a single mount. This is a light bucket a million times larger than the human eye and 25 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope. With advanced optical technologies and eventually lasers probing the distorted air above the telescope, the LBT will be able to match and sometimes exceed the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The mirrors operate in conjunction with two identical Multi-Object Double Spectrographs, or MODS, designed and built in the basement of Ohio State's McPherson Lab. Using the LBT and MODS, scientists can analyze the distance, physical conditions, and chemical makeup of the most distant stars and galaxies.

"Not only will we be able to undo most of the damaging distortions created by the Earth's atmosphere, but when the laser systems are added it will be an awesome sight," said Bradley Peterson, Ohio State astronomy department chair. "Take the main library building, put it on top of a 10,000-foot mountain, modify it so that you can spin the building around, and then add six green and two orange laser beams ascending into the sky."

Ohio State owns a one-eighth share of the telescope, yet has a one-sixth share of the observing time. Private support and a grant from the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement helped to make the extra viewing time possible. The university must pay annual operating expenses of $1.8 million.

“In some respects, the project’s success has made the department what it is today,” Peterson added. “It’s helped to recruit top astronomers as well as outstanding students who are attracted as much to the quality of our faculty as to the quality of the facilities.”

Peterson would like to seen an increase in private investments not only for the LBT, but also for his team who builds the instruments, like MODS, that make telescopes useful, and for the people—faculty, students, and post-doctoral fellows—whose ideas will be tested with this awesome machine.