At a ceremony on Mauna Kea today, astronomers revealed some of the sharpest infrared images ever obtained by a ground-based telescope. These first high-resolution images from Gemini North reveal the remarkable power of the telescope's technologies, which minimize distortions that have blurred astronomical images since Galileo first pointed a telescope skyward almost 400 years ago. The clarity of these images is equivalent to resolving the separation between a set of automobile headlights at a distance of 2,000 miles!
The images were unveiled at the dedication of Gemini North, one of the largest telescopes in the world, near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai'i. Built by an international partnership of seven nations, it is the first of two 8-meter telescopes that together can explore the entire northern and southern skies in optical and infrared light. Its twin, Gemini South, is under construction on Cerro Pachón in northern Chile. They are expected to obtain unprecedented optical and infrared views of stars, galaxies, and the most distant outposts of the known universe.
"By combining resources, this international partnership has produced world-class instruments far more powerful than would have been possible for individual countries," said Canada's Jean René Roy, chairman of the Gemini Board. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina are participating in the $193-million project, with almost half the funding coming from the United States.
The Gemini telescopes incorporate new technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors to collect and focus starlight with extraordinary precision. At infrared wavelengths, these technologies make it possible at times to achieve even more clarity than is possible with the Hubble Space Telescope. The observations will help astronomers make major advances in answering questions about how stars and planets form, the structure of the Milky Way and other galaxies, and the age and evolution of the universe.
"Gemini's innovative optics and thermal controls give these telescopes a significant edge in studying the universe using infrared light," said Matt Mountain, director of the international project. "The results we've seen today give us confidence that the risks we've taken will pay off for ground-based astronomers by providing extremely sharp images. This will allow us to look back in time to the most distant galaxies and even detect the trembling of individual molecules around newly forming stellar systems."
Gemini North is expected to start scientific operations by mid-2000, and Gemini South about a year later. Public funding will ensure that the telescopes are accessible to a broad range of astronomical researchers and students. Images and data from the Gemini telescopes will be available to astronomers around the world through sophisticated computer technology and the Next Generation Internet.
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) funds almost half of the Gemini project and acts as the executive agency for the international partnership. Each partner country contributes significant scientific, technical and financial support. The Gemini Observatory Project is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA), a non-profit consortium of 29 U.S. institutions and five international affiliates.
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Note to editors: High-resolution versions of the infrared images obtained by Gemini North and digital photographs of Gemini North and Gemini South will be available on the World Wide Web at 5 a.m. Hawaii time (11 a.m. EST) on June 25. The images may be found at the following sites:
Attention broadcasters: B-roll of Gemini North's first images and aerial and close-up views of the telescope are available on Betacam SP. Contact: Peter Michaud, Gemini Observatory (808) 974-2510, (808) 987-5876 (cell) e-mail: email@example.com.