NASA links two major telescopes

The Associated Press
Friday March 16, 2001

PASADENA — Astronomers have successfully linked the world’s two largest telescopes to create a single optical instrument powerful enough to pinpoint planets orbiting other stars. 

A team of National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronomers said Wednesday that its members had gathered the first starlight from the linked 33-foot telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea. 

Using a process called interferometry, the twin telescopes both captured the light from HD61294, a faint star in the constellation Lynx, late Monday.  

The starlight was then shuttled across the 275 feet separating the two telescopes and combined in a way to mimic the light-gathering potential of a single, larger telescope. 

“Successfully combining the light from the two largest telescopes on Earth is a fabulous technical advancement for science,” said Anne Kinney, director of NASA’s astronomical search for origins program, which includes the Keck interferometer. “Using them in this way gives us the equivalent of an 85-meter (279-foot) telescope.  

This will open the possibility of obtaining images with much greater clarity than ever before.” 

Astronomers will continue to test the Keck Interferometer through the summer, with limited science operations slated to begin this fall. 

One key role the new instrument will play is in the ongoing search for planets orbiting stars other than our own sun. 

Since 1995, astronomers have discovered nearly 50 planets, most Jupiter-sized, orbiting other stars. The Keck Interferometer will expand that hunt to include planets that orbit farther from their parent stars.