Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Frugal Texans Build Cutting-Edge Telescope STAR HOUNDS

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Frugal Texans Build Cutting-Edge Telescope STAR HOUNDS

Article excerpt

Astronomers often refer to their telescopes as "light buckets." The bigger the bucket, the deeper astronomers can peer into the heavens.

Last week, engineers at the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory here hoisted the final piece of machinery - a six-ton tracking mechanism - onto what will be the world's second-largest light bucket. The new Hobby-Eberly Telescope, with a mirror measuring 9.2 meters (30.2 feet) in diameter, may signal a fundamental change in the way telescopes are built and the way astronomers conduct their research.

Built for $13.5 million, about 15 percent of the cost of a comparable-sized telescope, the HET is an example of scientists getting a bigger bang for the buck in an era of shrinking budgets for astronomy. The HET is also part of a new trend in making research results available to scientists via the Internet. From the beginning, the design team knew that HET would have to be built on the cheap. Instead of a huge, expensive mirror, the telescope uses a complex honeycomb of 91 hexagonal mirrors. UT astronomers also decided to put the mirror in a fixed position, rather than building the complex machinery needed to tilt it. A smaller tracker will follow stars across the night sky. 'Limit your desires' "If you want to build a world-class facility on a university-type budget, you have to limit your desires," explains Frank Bash, director of McDonald Observatory, the facility that will run the HET. Such frugality will probably continue to keep other projects from reaching astronomical costs, he adds. "The trends in society and the cost of telescopes are working against astronomers who are building bigger and bigger telescopes, because the cost of building the telescopes goes up so rapidly and society hasn't shown an increased willingess to fund basic research." As such, he says, "telescopes will have to be more specialized." Bruce Margon, a University of Washington astronomer and chairman of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, calls the HET design a "fiendishly clever idea. By having a restricted number of instruments and a restricted piece of the sky, and by building a very large amount of collecting area, they've succeeded in making an instrument that is equivalent to a huge instrument for a much lower price." Unlike other optical telescopes, the HET will not be able to take pictures of faraway objects. Instead, it will only do spectroscopy, the study of the light waves emitted or absorbed by celestial objects. Astronomers use spectroscopy to determine the temperature, speed, and chemical composition of stars. To design and pay for the new telescope, UT astronomers teamed up with scientists from Pennsylvania State University in State College, Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and two German schools - Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and Georg-August University in Goettingen. …

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