Big Gifts

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Big Gifts

In 1969, the Pentagon found itself with a stack of large telescope mirrors that it couldn’t use. It had planned to launch them on Manned Orbiting Laboratory, a small space station. Astronauts would use the six-foot mirrors to spy on the Soviet Union and its allies. But improvements in robotic spy technology made the lab obsolete.

So six of the mirrors eventually were given to the University of Arizona. It combined them to make a single telescope — the third-largest in the world at the time. The Multi-Mirror Telescope operated from 1979 to 1998, when the mirrors were replaced by a single piece of glass.

Defense agencies have given several other big gifts to astronomy as well.

In 1976, for example, the Air Force gave a whole observatory. It was built on a mountain peak in New Mexico after World War II to study the Sun. The Pentagon wanted to know how the Sun might affect radio communication, radar, and other technologies, so it built telescopes to find out. The observatory is still in operation.

And NASA is preparing the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope for launch later this decade. It uses one of two spy satellites the National Reconnaissance Office gave to NASA a decade ago. Its primary mirror is the same size as the one in Hubble Space Telescope. But Roman’s field of view is a hundred times wider. The telescope will study dark energy, exoplanets, and other leading topics — thanks to an astronomical gift.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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