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Jan. 11, 2005
Contact: Dan Lara, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

KU researchers unveil 'telescope of the future' at San Diego conference

LAWRENCE -- Researchers led by the University of Kansas have unveiled an experimental "telescope of the future" at the American Astronomical Society's winter meetings in San Diego.

KU and its three research partners -- San Diego State University in California; Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.; and Composite Mirror Applications (CMA) in Tucson, Ariz. -- have been working over the past 14 months to incorporate ultra-lightweight materials in the construction of a prototype telescope and its mirrors.

If successful, the new technology could alter the way all future ground- and space-based telescopes are constructed by permitting larger telescopes to be built at far less cost, said Bruce Twarog, KU professor of physics and astronomy and lead investigator on the project.

" We are excited about the progress we have made and the opportunity to share our research at the AAS conference," Twarog said. "The ultimate goal of our research is to build a 1-meter (40-inch) class research telescope using ultra-lightweight technology."

More than 1,500 scientists from around the world are attending the four-day conference this week. The National Science Foundation is funding the project with a $1.4 million grant over three years. The project is called ULTRA, for Ultra-Lightweight Telescope for Research in Astronomy.

The ULTRA team displayed a 0.4-meter (16-inch) prototype at the press conference, and it will serve as a model to eventually build the 1-meter telescope. The initial prototype testing took place at the McGraw-Hill Observatory in Arizona but continues today within KU's aerospace engineering department. When completed near the end of 2005, the 1-meter telescope will be tested and operated from San Diego State's Mount Laguna Observatory, 45 miles east of San Diego.

The need to develop lightweight materials for telescopes is important, Twarog said. The defining task of a telescope is to collect light. The larger the collecting area of the telescope's mirror, the stronger the signal and the better the resolution of the telescope. As the diameters of the mirrors have grown beyond 8 meters (26 feet), with future mirrors increasing in size to as large as 30 meters (100 feet), the bigger the steel superstructure that supports the weight of the telescope. A telescope with a 30-meter mirror could weigh as much as 100 metric tons (91 tons). To send such a heavy telescope into space would be cost prohibitive.

Robert Romeo and Robert Martin of CMA developed the lightweight composite technology that was used in the prototype. CMA's technology can be used to produce telescopes that weigh one-tenth as much as a comparable glass-mirrored telescope.

The technique is based on layering sheets of lightweight graphite fibers embedded in resin on a mandrel (or mold) that has the same shape of the desired mirror. After curing, the merged layers are allowed to cool, hardening into the exact shape of the mandrel. After removal from the mandrel, the mirror surface is aluminized in the same manner as a conventional glass mirror. The mandrel can then be reused to generate multiple copies of the same mirror, with no apparent loss in surface quality.

Other KU researchers involved with Twarog on the project are Richard Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering; Ray Taghavi, professor of aerospace engineering; and Barbara Anthony-Twarog and Steve Shawl, professors of physics and astronomy.

More information on ULTRA can be found at KU's physics and astronomy department Web site at www.physics.ku.edu/facilities/ultra/ultra.shtml.

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The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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