Lowell Observatory's Discovery Channel Telescope gets ready to make its debut

Nov 18, 2011

Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory is putting the finishing touches on the
Discovery Channel Telescope. Local astronomers say the giant new
machine will catapult Lowell to the cutting edge of astronomy
research, solidify its legacy, and offer unprecedented views of the
Heavens to more than a billion Discovery Channel viewers. 

The Discovery Channel Telescope, or DCT, stands seven stories high on
Lowell Observatory’s Happy Jack site about 40 miles southeast of
Flagstaff. When it’s finished in the spring, the DCT will be the fifth
largest telescope in the continental United States, with a primary
mirror 4 meters, or about 14 feet, across. But as Lowell Observatory
director Jeff Hall explains, its significance goes beyond its size.

“What I’m most excited about is it’s ours,” he said. “Four-meter class
telescopes aren’t that unusual these days. It is, however, extremely
unusual, practically unique, for an individual institution to own a
facility of this caliber.”

When Lowell astronomers schedule time at other observatories, they
often have to be satisfied with short glimpses of the heavens,
sometimes just a few nights a year. Longer observation are required
for much of the research that goes on at Lowell, including Hall’s own
studies of sun-like stars.

“There are a number of early projects for the DCT. One of them is
looking Kuiper Belt objects at or beyond the orbit of Pluto. We’ll be
looking at system-forming planets, searching for Earth-like planets
around other stars. So there are a whole slew of projects right out of
the box,” he said.

Even though they’ll have ready access to the new telescope, Lowell
astronomers aren’t the only ones who are excited about it.

“This particular telescope is going to transform the astronomy
department at Boston University,” said Tereasa Brainerd, an
associate professor of astronomy at BU. Both BU and the University of
Maryland have formed partnerships with Lowell whereby their
researchers get telescope time, and in turn they help with telescope
costs and instrumentation. Brainerd says the telescope is a game
changer for her department.

“Funding at the moment is extremely competitive. So having that
guaranteed access should be very strong leverage with the funding
agencies,” she said.

The Discovery Channel Telescope was first conceived in 2003 and was
originally supposed to offer the first glimpse of space, or “first
light,” in 2008. Several glitches arose, the most disheartening when a
manufacturing company cracked one of the telescope’s mirrors at a cost
of $75,000. Lowell Observatory’s Jeff Hall says the hard-won, cutting
edge machine ties in directly with Lowell Observatory’s founding more
than 100 years ago:

“Our founder, Percival Lowell, was one of the great popularizers of
astronomy of his day,” Hall said. “He was passionate about bringing
the wonders about what’s in the universe to the public. The DCT will
be a remarkably public telescope. It’s a very unusual model for a
telescope like this, and one that’s just perfect for Lowell.”

First light for the DCT is now expected next spring. And the Discovery
Channel has tentatively picked next June 17 for the first major
prime-time televised feature about the making of the telescope.