Thursday, October 25, 2007

Extremely Large Telescopes—Answering the Extremely Large Questions

One of the great things about National Instruments is the wide range of applications we encounter. I had the pleasure of seeing an overview of large telescope applications this week. Large telescopes are built by the same process and long-term considerations as accelerators and colliders. The design phase lasts five years, deployment another five years, and then ongoing usage for the next twenty years or more.

Large telescopes use highly complex systems to control the position of many mirrors to form an image of outer space. The control systems also apply to the positioning, tracking, and focusing of the telescope.

Dirk de Mol in a previous position worked on developing LabVIEW-based control for the SALT – South African Large Telescope project. The SALT project uses a single parabolic-shaped mirror with air locks to raise and move the telescope from one position to another. It cannot change altitude which limits its view of the sky to 70% but also cuts the cost by 90%. The mirror is 11 meters across and the entire telescope weighs 82 tons which is light compared to most telescopes of its size. Its design is based on the Hobby-Eberly telescope run by the University of Texas.

ESO is the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere which runs the VLT Very Large Telescope project located in the in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The VLT has four primary telescopes with eight meter mirrors and four movable auxiliary telescopes that are two meters in diameter.

They are now working on the EELT or Extremely Large Telescope which plans to use almost 1000 mirrors. The larger aperture of the proposed telescope will provide greater resolution and sensitivity. The purpose of the EELT is to answer such questions as,
“What is dark energy and dark matter?”

“Is there life anywhere else in the Universe? “

The questions don’t get much larger than this.

Best regards,
Hall T.

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