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Astronomers World-Wide Await Pasadena Decision

Published on Saturday, July 18, 2009 | 6:26 am

The board of Pasadena-based Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will decide on Monday and Tuesday where in the world to build a unique, $1.2 billion instrument many believe will produce images 12 times sharper than the  Hubble Space Telescope.

The project is considered by many in the scientific community to be the highest-priority large project for ground-based astronomy.

To meet the project’s deadlines, a decision must be made next week whether to build the next-generation scope atop the 4,200 meter-high summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea or in Chile’s Cerro Armazones desert.

The telescope’s unique design will provide unparalleled high-sensitivity spatial resolution by using a very-large, 30 meter aperture coupled with an adaptive optics system that senses atmospheric turbulence in real-time and adjusts the TMT’s “deformable mirror.”

The mirror being designed for TMT will be connected to 3,000 actuators that push and pull the mirror’s surface up to 800 times each second. This flowing and rippling of the mirror’s surface reshapes the light-waves entering the telescope to ensure the mirror precisely changes shape to counteract the blurring of Earth’s turbulent atmosphere.

TMT’s board says the telescope will provide new observational opportunities in essentially every field of astronomy and astrophysics.

“Furthermore, as has been the case for every previous increase in capability of this magnitude, it is very likely that the scientific impact of TMT will go far beyond what we envision today and TMT will enable discoveries that we cannot anticipate,” the board said on its website.

Project managers hope the TMT will be able to operate at the same time as the James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched about 2013. The TMT would thus be able to work in a complementary way with the Webb telescope, just as the Keck observatory has worked with the Hubble Space Telescope, combining the different discovery and study capabilities of each system.

The Thirty Meter Telescope project is jointly managed by Caltech, the University of California, and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. It is headquartered at 2632 E. Washington Blvd.

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