In the mid 1960s, NASA was planning to send robotic probes to the Moon and planets just as fast as it could build them. And it needed help from telescopes on the ground to support those missions.
But most of the existing telescopes were already pretty busy. So the ambitious new director of McDonald Observatory offered to help out. Harlan J. Smith proposed that NASA pay for a big new telescope at McDonald. The University of Texas would pay for the dome, and much of the telescope's time would be dedicated to observing the worlds of the solar system.
NASA agreed, and the new telescope was dedicated 40 years ago today.
The telescope's main mirror, which gathers light from planets and other astronomical objects, is 107 inches in diameter -- about nine feet. When the telescope was dedicated, that made it the third-largest in the world. Today, though, it's not even in the top 30. But thanks to improvements in technology, it's actually more effective today than it was 40 years ago. Its view of the sky is clearer, and it can see objects that are fainter and farther away. New upgrades this year should improve its view even more.
The telescope has undergone one other upgrade. When it was dedicated, it was known simply as the "107-inch telescope." But after Harlan Smith died, it was rededicated in his honor. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope should continue to make important contributions to astronomy for decades to come.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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