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Hawaii's Big Island to Get World's Largest Telescope

July 21, 2009 By: Jena Tesse Fox


Astronomy buffs will soon have a new reason to visit Hawaii. The Associated Press is reporting that a consortia of U.S. and Canadian universities on Tuesday announced it has decided to build the world's largest telescope in Hawaii.

Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp. picked the Mauna Kea volcano for the $1.2 billion telescope, which is expected to allow scientists to see some 13 billion light years away. This distance is so great, and so far back in time, that researchers should be able to watch the first stars and galaxies forming.

The telescope will be built by the University of California, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.

Its mirror will stretch almost 100 feet in diameter, about three times the diameter of the current world's largest telescopes, which are also located atop Mauna Kea. The dormant volcano is already home to 12 telescopes. It is popular with astronomers because its summit sits well above the clouds at 13,796 feet, giving scientists a clear view of the sky for 300 days a year.

Hawaii's isolated position in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also means the area is relatively free of air pollution. Few cities on the Big Island mean there aren't a lot of man-made lights around to disrupt observations.

The Thirty Meter Telescope would collect 10 times more light than existing telescopes, helping researchers more clearly see objects that appear faint with current devices. It is expected to routinely offer views of hundreds of planets orbiting around other stars and stars that are near the sun. Current telescopes have only rarely been able to show these images.

A partnership of European countries plans to build the European Extremely Large Telescope, which would have a 138-foot mirror. The group is considering sites in Argentina, Chile, Morocco, and Spain. It plans to decide on a location next year and be able to host its first observation in 2018.

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