Space, the private frontier. It looks like private corporations are pushing forward not only space travel these days, but astronomy as well. Last Saturday night, the Discovery Channel opened the doors on its brand-new, privately funded telescope in Happy Jack, Arizona. The First Light Gala event featured a keynote speech by none other than Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, and the telescope is already getting some great pictures. The Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) is the culmination of a partnership between Discovery Communications and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. The 4.3 meter mirror on the DCT makes it 5thlargest optical telescope in the continental U.S., proving that you can still get something for your $53 million these days. The primary goals of the new scope are to study the Kuiper Belt, a region littered with left-overs from our solar system’s formation outside the orbit of Neptune that stretches up to 50 AUs out from the sun, and small dwarf galaxies. Discovery News Space Producer, Ian O’Neill is particularly excited by this new privately funded powerhouse:
I’m excited by the outreach opportunities that the Lowell/Discovery Channel combo will bring. Bringing hardcore research astronomy to the mainstream will be particularly exciting. But as far as research is concerned, I really hope that the DCT will give an insight to the mysteries of star formation inside dwarf galaxies, thereby helping to evolve galaxy formation models. Plus, it’s a freakin’ HUGE telescope, it’s just cool to know I’ll have a ringside seat to see what this monster can do!
While the opening gala for the scope was held last Saturday, the DCT has already captured some beautiful images. Some of the images were shown publicly for the first time since the DCT took them back in May of this year. According to Space.com, the telescope will be in a testing phase for the next 18 months and is expected to begin its real scientific workout somewhere between 2013 and 2014. Say what you will about Discovery Channel’s programming, you cannot doubt their commitment to science. While SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are private companies dedicated to pushing the boundaries of space travel, they remain profit-seeking businesses. The DCT is a really big, really expensive undertaking devoted purely to science, so if they want to air 10 more seasons of American Chopper while doing stuff like this, then I say go for it. Here’s a look at the DCT’s first pics.