The picture had no particular scientific value, but astronomers were still "hopping up and down" with excitement over the first photo taken by what will soon be the world's most powerful optical telescope.
Scientists said the $94.2 million Keck Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, will peer deeper into space than ever before and yield clues to the creation of the universe.Astronomers on Tuesday displayed Keck's first picture, which was taken with only a quarter of the telescope's 36 mirror segments in place. When completed it will be the world's largest telescope with a mirror 10 meters in diameter.
The photo of a galaxy 65 million light years from Earth more than matched the quality of images from the world's largest effective telescope, the 5-meter Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory. It was taken Nov. 24.
"When we first saw the picture we were really thrilled," said mirror designer Jerry Nelson, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. "We were all hopping up and down."
The photograph had no particular scientific value, Nelson said. He said the galaxy NGC 1232 was selected simply to demonstrate the quality of the telescope, which will be fully functioning late next year.
Astronomers said the Keck will allow them to gaze back 12 billion years in time by revealing light images still traveling toward Earth.
They will be able to see stars as they appeared some 3 billion years after the birth of the universe. Palomar, by contrast, reaches back 8 billion years.
"How did the Big Bang lead to the structure of the universe?" asked William Frazer, vice chairman of the California Association of Research in Astronomy. "To understand that we've got to look closer to when the galaxies first formed."