World largest telescope makes its debut

The study of astrophysics  has taken a step forward with the debut of the world’s biggest optical telescope, known as the GTC or Grantecan, which are abbreviations for “large telescope of the Canary Islands.”

The GTC turned its vast 10.4 meter (34-feet) wide mirror toward the skies and peered into space for the first time last Friday night. “The bigger the mirror, the more light the telescope can capture and the further it can see,” Pedro Alvarez, director of the GTC project, explained.

At 01.00 hours (2300 GMT) on a crystal-clear night, Spain‘s Crown Prince Felipe keyed in the computer codes which brought the observatory’s complex machinery to life. The ceremony launched a final test phase for the €130 million (US$179 million) telescope, which is designed to take advantage of pristine, clear skies at the Atlantic island of La Palma. It should be fully operational by May 2008.

Among those present for the opening was Brian May, lead guitarist of pop group Queen, who studied part of his doctorate in astrophysics at the Canary Islands institute. May is working on a musical score which will be played at the telescope’s inauguration next summer.

The GTC is located at the astrophysical research station of Roque de los Muchachos at the highest point of the Island of La Palma, 2,400 meters (7,870 feet) above sea-level.

Alone above the clouds – Originally uploaded by **ANNE

Construction work took seven years and involved more than 1,000 people from nearly 100 companies. Hauling parts of the telescope weighing a total of 500 tons to a height of 2,400m in the rough weather conditions of the winter months proved to be quite a technical challenge.

“With this (telescope) it will possible to capture the birth of new stars, to study more profoundly the characteristics of black holes or to decipher the chemical components generated by the Big Bang,” the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute said in a statement.

The institute is considered one of the world’s centers of excellence in astrophysics owing to the special geographical situation of the islands, off the northwest coast of Africa, which offers unusually transparent skies.

The cost of building the GTC was borne by Spain‘s Education and Science Ministry, the regional government of the Canary Islands, with partner astronomical institutes in Mexico and the University of Florida covering about 10 percent of the cost.

With information from: IOL, IHT and El Mundo (in Spanish only)

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