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WRITER: Linda Schweizer, Carnegie Observatories
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Las Campanas, Chile — "First Light!" suddenly rang through the air in the darkened and eerily tense control room, crowded with astronomers, engineers and telescope operators.
The phenomenon known as "first light" had just been achieved for one of the twin Magellan 6.5-meter telescopes of the Carnegie Observatories.
The Magellan Project is a partnership between the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the University of Arizona, Harvard University, the Massachusetts of Technology, and the University of Michigan. These partners have been designing and constructing the unique southern hemisphere telescopes since 1993. "First light" is achieved only after all of the optical elements of a telescope are placed in the mount and aligned. On Sept. 15, two days after stormy weather, the slit of the dome atop Cerro Las Campanas was opened, and the giant 6.5-meter (22-foot diameter) mirror was uncovered and pointed towards NGC 6809, a star cluster 20,000 light years away.
The stellar light streamed for the first time onto the primary mirror, then the secondary, then the tertiary, finally making its mark on the CCD (charge-coupled device) camera. Magellan Project Scientist Steve Shectman was at the controls, tweaking the focus and adjusting the thermal system, when the first image was recorded.
The small, round images of the stars indicated an extraordinarily fine optical system that could take advantage of the unusually good "seeing" at Las Campanas Observatory.
"The completion of the telescopes is a phenomenal collaborative achievement," notes Augustus Oemler, Jr., Director of Carnegie Observatories. "They will enable us to observe faint objects near the edge of the universe that are seen far back in time." "The telescope will completely change the way we do science," commented John Mulchaey, an astronomer at Carnegie Observatories. "We can now do studies that we couldn’t even dream of doing just a few years ago."
Each partner of the Magellan Project has its own scientific agenda for the new telescopes. The large apertures will facilitate observations of distant, high-redshift objects, and the uniquely wide fields mean that entire clusters of galaxies can be observed at one time. Consortium astronomers hope to understand our origins by studying the chemical history of the first stars in our galaxy, as well as the first galaxies to form near the edge of the universe. They will search for objects orbiting black holes, investigate fiery galaxy collisions, and map out the large-scale structure of the universe.
Since the time of Galileo, the need to peer deeper into the universe has driven astronomers to build ever larger and more capable telescopes. Most of these telescopes are situated in the Northern Hemisphere, but the central regions of our own Galaxy, many of the most massive star-forming complexes, and the vast laboratory for the study of stellar evolution, the Magellanic Clouds, are best viewed from the Southern Hemisphere. The clear, dark skies of the Chilean Andes are unsurpassed anywhere on earth. The Magellan telescopes will comprise the majority of the access to the Southern sky for U.S. astronomers.
A suite of instruments, including spectrographs and cameras, will help the astronomers explore the unknown with these new giant telescopes. One of the most intriguing new instruments is aptly named MAGIC. It will enable astronomers to take advantage of "targets of opportunity," such as gamma-ray bursts and supernovae, which occur suddenly and without notice. MAGIC is being built at MIT’s Space Sciences Laboratory.
The Magellan mirrors are a radical departure from the conventional solid-glass mirrors used in the past. They are honeycombed on the inside, and made out of Ohara E6 borosilicate glass that is melted, molded, and spun into shape in a specially designed rotating oven. The paraboloid mirrors were cast and polished by the University of Arizona Mirror Lab.
Matt Johns, Magellan project manager, and members of the Magellan team will commission the telescope over the next few months so that it will be ready for scientific observations in February 2001. The Magellan Project is named after Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who first circumnavigated the Earth.
The 50-foot-high, 150-ton telescopes slew and point with the accuracy of a Swiss watch. In order to achieve the smooth, near-frictionless motion required for tracking astronomical objects, the telescopes float on a film of high-pressure oil only two-ten-thousandths-of-an-inch thick. They are so well balanced that a tiny child pushing on the telescope could move all 150 tons.
"People don’t think of Los Angeles as a location where scientific instruments of this magnitude are fabricated," according to David Chivens, one of the owners of L & F Industries, where the twin telescopes’ alt-azimuth mounts were fabricated.
Science instrument commissioning will take a break in December when the dedication of the Magellan facility at Las Campanas Observatory is scheduled to take place.
Related Links
* UA Mirror Lab
* Carnegie Observatories
[Image 1, also at] Magellan 1 first light image, of star cluster NGC 6809, taken Sept. 15, 2000
[Image 2]
Magellan 1 at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile (PHOTO: Steve Warner, UA Steward Observatory)