CNN Technology

Old telescope gets new lease on life

November 14, 1995
Web posted at: 12:45 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Jim Hill

MOUNT WILSON, California (CNN) -- As the sun sets on Mount Wilson observatory, there is a new era dawning inside. The people who run the 100-inch Hooker Telescope have made some changes that now give some of the sharpest images yet from an earth-bound telescope.


The technique, says physicist Chris Shelton, is using a mirror that changes shape.

"If you will ... a carnival mirror," he says, "but one that undistorts instead of distorting."

The enemy of planetary telescopes is pollution in the earth's atmosphere. Greater magnification only magnifies the haze, dust and water vapor. But the Hooker's sensor analyzes atmospheric pollution at the rate of 100 times per second. It then signals tiny devices which push and pull the telescope's flexible mirror.

Mount Wilson's scientists aim the giant telescope at a star called 51-Pegasus, which, since the time of Galileo, has appeared to astronomers as "a blob that kind of moves around and jiggles around on the screen," according to Shelton.

"If I turn on what's called the deformable mirror, then boom, it locks up into a little dot of light," he says.

The pin-point focusing power of the telescope now makes highly-defined pictures possible. It also gives a new life to the 1918 Hooker telescope, which had been eclipsed by newer optics.

It's fitting that this particular telescope has been re- created with new technology. Decades ago, it was information from the Hooker telescope that led scientists to their current theory of creation -- the "big bang" theory of how the universe was born.


Astronomer Edwin Hubble laid the groundwork for the theory on Mount Wilson. The same atmospheric conditions that keep smog trapped over Los Angeles keeps the upper atmosphere relatively clear, and Hubble got the best view of his era using the Hooker.

He learned that stars appear to be speeding away from us, as if from the center of an ancient explosion. For his work, the space-based Hubble Telescope -- unsurpassed in viewing faint objects in space -- was named in his honor. telescope

But Hubble's old friend the Hooker can now do as good a job as the orbiting telescope on bright objects.

"The most exciting thing for most people is to actually see planets around other stars," notes Shelton.

And it's exciting for an old telescope -- whose mirror was actually cut from mass of melted wine bottles in 1895 -- to be on the cutting edge again.

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