UA astronomers will soon be able to gaze deep into space atop Mount Graham, 150 miles northeast of Tucson.
A large, finely polished piece of glass was carefully installed into the large binocular telescope (LBT) March 16. After receiving a thin aluminum coating, it will become the first of two mirrors in the LBT.
The two 4.8-meter mirrors will make the telescope the most powerful in the world, UA officials said. The LBT project began in 1985.
"We have been working a long time. It is finally coming together," said John Hill, the LBT project director. "It has been fun."
Tucked in a special box, the mirror made its journey to Mount Graham in October. The most precarious part of the installation came when the mirror had to be lifted and inserted into the telescope building.
"We used a lifting fixture made up of 36 suction cups and picked it up out of transport box and put into mirror cell, a big piece of metal that the mirror is clamped to," Hill said. Due to thinner air on Arizona's fourth-tallest mountain, suction pressure is two-thirds as strong as it is in Tucson.
"I was a little bit nervous," Hill said, "but we had done all the calculations."
The UA hopes to see its first celestial light later this year once the hardware and software is finished, Hill said.
The LBT will be able to collect data with the first mirror, but a second mirror will enable the telescope to gather more precise images.
In the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab under the west side of Arizona Stadium, the second mirror awaits final polishing. The mirror could be ready to join the first mirror as early as next spring. The price tag on the mirrors is $22 million.
Hill and others on the LBT team said the Mount Graham telescope, once complete, will produce space images up to 10 times clearer than the Hubble Space Telescope. New technology allows the terrestrial telescope to account for atmospheric conditions, which can distort images of space.
"Hubble has a 2.4-meter telescope, and its image sharpness is limited by its size," Hill said.
Astronomers are excited to look at stars on the outer parts of the solar system and distant galaxies.
"The exciting part is the things you didn't expect to find," Hill said. "No one knows what those cool things will be."
The successful instillation of the mirror is the most recent stage of the LBT project, one that has met opposition from various American Indian and environmental groups since the mid-1980s.
"The university ignores that the mountain is treasured by native peoples and environmentalists and has been studied by the earth science community," said Robin Silver of the Center for Biological diversity.
Mount Graham, known as Dzil Nchaa Si An, is sacred to the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache tribes that live nearby.
Environmentalists do not support the project because the Mount Graham International Observatory imposes on the mountain's unique ecosystem.
When transporting the mirror up the mountain last October, five distinct ecological zones were passed.
According to the Mount Graham Coalition Web site, the mountain has more ecological zones than any other mountain in the United States. Old-growth spruce fir forests cover the top of the mountain, which is the only home to the Mount Graham red squirrel that is now endangered.
"The summit of Mount Graham was and still can be a state and national treasure. The virgin old-growth spruce fir have never been logged," Silver said. "Now we have a giant phallic symbol sitting where we treasure."
In addition to the UA, the LBT project involves the Ohio State University, Research Corp., a German consortium of astronomical research institutes and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics.
The groups in opposition to the Mount Graham project are offended by the continuation of the project.
"It is more of an insult ... it is also a reminder of our successes and a reminder of the difficult(ies) the university will continue to encounter," Silver said. "Their first goal to have first light 1992: It's 2004 (and) they have just hung first mirror; they are 12 years late. They (have) one eyeball out of two and they are celebrating."
"The resistance will never go away," Silver said.
Hill said it has taken longer than expected to build the LBT for many reasons.
"In 1985, the idea was to have first light in 1992. Then there were delays of red squirrels, getting money and making the mirror. Astronomers always think they can do it faster than everyone has done it before, but then reality hits," Hill said.