Telescope Facelift II

StarDate: June 3, 2011

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Like most modern technology, a telescope needs occasional upgrades to keep it at the cutting edge. So engineers are getting ready to upgrade the giant Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory. It'll help astronomers hunt for evidence of dark energy -- a subject that's at the cutting edge of modern science.

As part of the upgrade, the engineers will replace the mirrors, electronics, and instruments at the top of the telescope. The new package will provide a clearer, sharper view of the universe.

It's not an easy job, though. The new package weighs five times more than the current system. And it has scores of mechanical parts to allow the telescope to track its targets with high precision, explains John Good, the engineering manager for the upgrades.

GOOD: Our optical tolerance is less than a spot that is about 10 microns in diameter -- well under a thousandth of an inch. When you're looking at small-scale dimensions like this, to that precision, the world becomes very springy and shaky. We like to think of it as a big, shaking Jell-O mold. You can actually walk up to the present telescope, that's a hundred tons, while it's focused on a star, and you can push it with your hand and you can actually move that telescope off of its track. It gives you a respect and appreciation for how difficult it is to make a big, heavy machine track something that's hundreds of millions of light-years out in space -- very difficult.

The telescope is expected to return to service by the end of the year, with the dark energy search beginning in 2012.

 

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011

 

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