Tucson astronomers cheered by performance of telescope technology

2014-03-26T15:06:00Z 2014-03-26T20:10:06Z Tucson astronomers cheered by performance of telescope technologyBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Astronomer Lori Allen said the discovery of the most remote orbiting object in our solar system is “terrific news” in itself, but also for the instrument that found it.

“DECam is one of those game-changing instruments,” she said.

“You put a large field of view on a 4-meter (13-foot) telescope and it really brings new capabilities to many fields of astronomy,” said Allen, director of Kitt Peak National Observatory.

DECam, the Dark Energy Camera, was built to explore the imprint of expansion in the early days of the universe — to look deeply into space for an explanation of the force called dark energy.

But as part of the deal for attaching it to the Blanco Telescope in Chile, run by the Tucson-based National Optical Astronomy Observatory, it is also available for use in projects proposed by the astronomical community.

As Scott Sheppard and Chad Trujillo demonstrated, it works well for investigating the far reaches of our own solar system.

“I think DECam will make a large impact on solar system science. This is just the beginning of that large impact,” Allen said.

Allen has two good reasons to be thrilled by DECam’s performance:

She is heading to Chile next month for 10 nights on DECam, looking for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids that are too faint to be seen by smaller survey telescopes such as those on Southern Arizona’s Kitt Peak, Mount Bigelow and Mount Lemmon.

She also is working to bring a sister instrument of DECam, known as the Dark Energy Survey Instrument, or DESI, to Kitt Peak’s 4-meter Mayall Telescope.

Brian Nord, a postdoctoral researcher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, said one of the amazing things about the discovery is that it occurred in November 2012, just three months after the instrument was turned on.

Fermilab heads the Dark Energy Survey collaboration that built DECam.

Nord said he was in Chile in October 2012 and researchers were still working out the kinks.

The instrument has been working so well ever since that he likens it to a “PlayStation game — a boring eight-screen game.”

Sheppard called the new dwarf planet “a technological discovery” that could not have occurred without DECam’s combination of wide field and big mirror.

“The big leap forward will be LSST,” he said. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, also bound for Chile, will survey the entire night sky every week.

Its 8-meter mirror is being polished at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, and its headquarters are in Tucson.

It passed its final design review in December.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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