Please notice the quotation marks around the title, because none of the telescopes that have been a part of my life have been “mine”–I have never owned one!
Lets begin in 1946, when I was a 6th grader in Miss Weber’s class. She was an enthusiast about science teaching, especially astronomy. (Too bad there are not more like her today.) So, when she found out that I was already hooked on astronomy even at that age, she decided that the class would build a telescope and she somehow rounded up the funds. I was “project scientist”. I sent away to some mail-order place for a very inexpensive simple lens and eyepiece. I went to a sheet metal shop and had them make us the tube. To mount the lens in the tube I designed a wooden “cell” and went to my Uncle’s house where he had small shop in his garage. I proudly took out the precious lens and as I was handing it to him, to my horror it slipped out of my hands and headed for the cement floor and disaster. If you have seen the recent ads for Southwest Airlines (“Want to get away?”) you will understand my feelings at that instant. But lady luck smiled on me, and the lens landed unharmed on a large pile of sawdust on the cement floor. The telescope was completed and a few weeks later Miss Weber’s class got our first look at Saturn’s rings–a sight that I still never tire of.
Fast forward some 32 years to Tucson Arizona, where at the U. of A. my predecessor as Director, Bart Bok, had overseen the construction of our 90″ telescope. Using that instrument my colleagues and I took the spectra of the “double quasar” which established it as the first known gravitational lens. Just a few weeks later, by one of those serendipitous events so common in astronomy, I was carrying out a routine survey of quasar spectra with my graduate student when the seeing quickly improved from about 2 arc seconds to better than 1 arc second. To our amazement, the single fuzzy image of the quasar we had been observing broke up into 3 distinct closely spaced images, but worsened again before we could get spectra of them individually.
Fortunately, just a short time before, the Multiple Mirror Telescope (photo below) on Mount Hopkins had just been commissioned and we were scheduled for two nights with that telescope and the its spectrograph. Since I was heavily involved in the birth of that telescope I should say a few words about its history and novel design. Through his connections with the military, Dr. Aden Meinel (then in Tucson) acquired six 72-inch mirror blanks and he and Dr. Frank Low, an infrared astronomer, conceived the idea of putting them together as a single telescope but specialized as a low-cost infrared telescope. It became clear to me that the same concept could also yield a powerful general purpose telescope, and in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution we were able to raise funds from the federal government and the state of Arizona to build such an instrument.
At the time the “MMT”, as we named it, incorporated several novel designs, aside from the unique idea of combining the light from 6 separate mirrors into a single focus: It was the first large telescope to utilize an alt-azimuth mount, which required very sophisticated computer control, and it was also the first large telescope to be housed in an enclosure which co-rotated with the telescope. This could be very disorienting if you entered the building facing east and went out the same door to find yourself nearly stumbling off the steep western slope of Mt. Hopkins. But, back to the observation: we succeeded in getting spectra of the 3 separate images of the “triple quasar”, thus confirming the 2nd known gravitational lens. Since that time the 6 separate mirrors of the MMT have been replaced by a single 260″ mirror, though it is still called the “MMT”!
I should mention two more of “my” telescopes I have been fortunate enough to use and do interesting science with. First, the Hubble Space Telescope, for which I was on two of the instrument design teams. The first of these was for a high resolution spectrograph. With this instrument my colleagues and I discovered the so-called “low redshift Lyman alpha forest”, but to explain the significance of that discovery would take a separate article and/or a CCAS talk, so I won’t attempt it here. The second such instrument was “NICMOS”, a near-infrared camera. With NICMOS our team took what at that time was the most sensitive infrared image available in a section of the famous area of the sky known as the “Hubble Deep Field”. One of our goals was to identify possible extremely distant and newly forming galaxies. We found one such promising candidate and later confirmed it as mentioned below. Of course one doesn’t “observe” with HST but instead copies to your home computer (using secure passwords to prevent pirates from stealing your data!) the files at the HST science center. I must confess it isn’t really as much fun as observing at a telescope, but the data is wonderful.
The confirmation of the distant galaxy candidate mentioned above was made at one of the Keck telescopes (10m or 400″ diameter mirror) on Mauna Kea. Access to this telescope is jealously guarded by Cal Tech and the U. of California, but through the good offices of a friend, the Director of the Keck Observatory, we were able to obtain a spectrum of this object and confirm that it was a proto-galaxy, the most distant known at that time. The Keck telescope is an awesome instrument, located at nearly 14,000′ on lunar-like Mauna Kea. But “observing” at the Keck telescope almost makes me blush with shame: In the lush setting of the town of Waimea on the “big island” one observes remotely from a comfortable control room at 2400′, a far cry from the privations of a cold, windy night guiding a long exposure in the “good old days”
This already-too-long tale doesn’t leave room to describe two other “old friends” I have used–the 200″ Palomar telescope, and the 100″ telescope on Mt. Wilson: the telescope with which I made my first observations as a professional astronomer when I was a post doctoral fellow in 1960. Finally, I will leave to a talk I promised Walt Reil I would give to the CCAS on “Observing with Magellan” (photo left) –the new pair of 260″ telescopes at the Carnegie Observatories Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
So, those are some of “my” telescopes. I think it may not be appreciated how much all astronomers–professionals and amateurs alike–owe to the skill and dedication of those engineers, scientists and administrators who have conceived, designed, constructed and fought for funding of, all these wonderful telescopes, along with the powerful instruments and detectors without which they would not be effective. Too often, credit goes to those who made the discoveries, when in truth without these instruments they would never have been made. And still more powerful instruments are in the offing and with them even more amazing discoveries will be made.
~Dr. Ray Weymann