Scientists waited more than a decade for the science missions of the Discovery Channel Telescope to begin. This instrument is one of the most sophisticated telescopes in the world and the 5th largest optical telescope in the country. Its placement in the Coconino National Forest at a dark sky site located in Happy Jack means the telescope is situated in one of the darkest and, therefore, best places from which to view the night sky. This privately funded telescope will supplement the ability of Lowell Observatory to continue pioneering work in astronomy. DCT is expected to obtain high-quality data more than 300 nights a year because of Arizona’s climate and clear skies.
This project of Lowell Observatory and Discovery Communications cost more than $53 million. The telescope holds research partnerships with Boston University, the University of Maryland, the University of Toledo, and Northern Arizona University. Some of the current research projects include:
- Surveying the composition of Kuiper Belt objects orbiting our solar system beyond Neptune
- Studying the physical properties of comets
- Investigations into the evolution and structure of small galaxies
- Searching for extra-solar planets and near-Earth asteroids
- Studying the masses of stars
The University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences created the primary mirror for this telescope; it was the largest mirror the lab had created at the time. The mirror is 14 feet (4.3m) in diameter and 4 inches thick; the 6,700-pound (3,000kg) mirror took three years to polish. The facility at Happy Jack includes its own coating shed so that the mirror could be initially coated in aluminum at the site. This building also allows the mirror to be recoated as needed, typically every few years, to prevent oxidation of the reflective layer.
This 4.3-meter aperture telescope is 85 feet (26m) tall and 62 feet (19m) tall and resides in a 7-story tall structure. It also features:
- Large Monolithic Imager (LMI), a 16-million-pixel camera, gives it the ability to image targets in great detail in a field of view that is 13 arc minutes wide
- Ritchey-Chrétien mode allows it to be highly effective even when the moon is bright
- Can hold up to five instruments, several of which are currently under construction
- 150 push-pull actuators help keep the mirror at the correct curvature
- Visible and near-infrared wavelength spectroscopy
In 2012, the telescope, with its great mirror coated and installed, saw first light. After an 18-month testing phase, the telescope’s first science run began at the start of 2015.
You can learn more about the telescope’s imager here, and view some of the beautiful images the DCT has captured here.