Over the last 15 years, astronomers have discovered almost 400 planets orbiting stars other than our own. Many of those planets were found or confirmed with a telescope that celebrated its 50th birthday this summer.
Lick Observatory dedicated the Shane Telescope on July 16th, 1959. It's atop Mount Hamilton in California, near San Jose. At the time, it was the second-largest telescope in the world, with a main mirror 10 feet in diameter.
Unlike most machines, telescopes generally get better with age. Better detectors allow them to gather more light, and better control systems provide more accurate pointing and tracking. And the ingenuity of the astronomers who use them doesn't hurt, either.
Astronomers from the University of California began hunting planets with the telescope in the early '90s. By watching a star for many nights, they could see if it was pulled back and forth a bit by the gravity of an orbiting planet. They announced their first discovery in 1995. Since then, they've found scores more. And they continue to use the Shane to look for planets today.
And today, the telescope can see more clearly than ever thanks to another innovation, known as adaptive optics.
Earth's atmosphere blurs the view of astronomical objects. The adaptive optics system uses a laser and a set of small mirrors to overcome this blurring and sharpen the view.
So you can teach an old telescope new tricks -- tricks that help keep it going for decades.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009
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