Friday, July 21, 2006

Even professors can get excited

Even "stodgy" professors can get excited and enjoy themselves sometimes. This picture was taken at last week's teacher workshop at McDonald Observatory. It shows Professor James Liebert from the University of Arizona steering the 11-meter diameter Hobby-Eberly Telescope. If you look close, you can see a fairly big smile on Liebert's face as he drives the telescope around in a circle.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope has a unique design. It sits at a fixed angle, but can steer around in a circle. Because of this, there is a limited area of the sky in which the telescope can point (it is donut-shaped), but as the Earth turns, most objects in the sky find their way into the telescope's reach at some point. This design save many tens of millions of dollars in the design and construction of the telescope, though it does limit its science.

At any rate, we astronomers are rarely given the controls to a large telescope, as we are likely to try and run it somewhere it cannot go and break a $100-million instrument. Since the Hobby-Eberly can only go in circles, the operators let us play with it for a short period of time. And we had lots of fun.

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