After seven years of construction, Lowell Observatory's state-of-the-art 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope is about to come online.
Perched at 7,760 feet on the edge of a cinder cone 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, Lowell Observatory’s new Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) is set to celebrate the start of science operations this weekend. Construction crews broke ground in 2005 at the new site, called Happy Jack after the unincorporated town nearby. Assembly of the DCT itself was completed in February, and observers took first-light images in May. It’s those images that observatory staff will unveil at a gala event on Saturday.
At 4.3 meters, the DCT is the fifth-largest telescope in the continental United States, smaller only than the Large Binocular Telescope, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the MMT (formerly known as the Multiple Mirror Telescope), and the famous 5.1-m Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California.
The 1.8-m Perkins Telescope was the largest scope at Lowell before DCT was completed. While smaller scopes still produce valuable science, Lowell astronomers built DCT because they understood that a larger and more sophisticated instrument was necessary to keep the observatory competitive in the high-tech world of professional astronomy, says DCT project manager Bill DeGroff.
The DCT will take observations both in optical and near-infrared wavelengths. Planned projects for the new telescope include a spectroscopic survey of Kuiper Belt objects, comet observations, and a study of the relationship between mass and luminosity in the youngest, most massive stars.
DCT's workhorse instrument during early science missions will be its Large Monolithic Imager, a single-sensor, 36-megapixel CCD camera with a wide field of view, 12.5 arcminutes on a side. Mirrors mounted near the LMI will let astronomers quickly switch between instruments, allowing them to take images at nearly the same time they take spectra. Lowell received the CCD a few weeks ago, and the instrument is undergoing final assembly now. After the DCT's spectrographs are installed, DeGroff anticipates about a year of commissioning and early science before the scope reaches full operations in mid-to-late 2013.
The DCT's main corporate sponsor is — wait for it — the Discovery Channel, which contributed $10 million to the $53-million facility. (Discovery Communications chairman John Hendricks contributed another $6 million through his family's foundation.) The channel will use its time on the scope to create educational material and science-outreach programming for its television network. The network filmed a documentary during the telescope's construction, which it plans to air in early September.