Discovery Channel telescope sees first light!

By Phil Plait | July 23, 2012 12:30 pm

A new telescope has opened its eye to the heavens: the Discovery Channel Telescope – yes, that Discovery Channel – that’s part of the venerable Lowell Observatory. Sitting on a mountain top in Arizona, over the weekend the 4.3 meter telescope saw what astronomers call "first light": the first time it sees actual photons from the sky. Its first target: the lovely galaxy M 109:

[Click to galactinate, and also see pictures of the Whirlpool and Sombrero galaxies.]

M 109 is a barred spiral galaxy about 85 or so million light years away in the direction of Ursa Major, and is part of a loose group containing about 50 other galaxies both big and small. It’s the brightest in the group, and located on its far side from us.

The Discovery Channel Telescope is designed to see in optical light (the kind we see with our eyes) as well as near-infrared. I’m very glad to see it operational: as I’ve said here so many times, the more eyes we have on the sky, the better. The sky is wide and deep, and there’s so much to see and learn. With this new addition to our fleet of scientific instruments peering into the Universe, our understand will only grow.

Image credit: Lowell Observatory/DCT. Tip o’ the dew shield to astronomer Ian O’Neill for the news!

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (22)

  1. DennyMo

    Does this foray into real science suggest that their TV programming will be following suit any time soon? Here’s hoping.

  2. DanO

    Several of those foreground stars are disks! Is the magnification so great that stars are not merely points of light? or is that some artifact of the optics?

  3. Tara Li

    Not a lot of “galactinate” apparent when you click through – is there somewhere to get the full-size image?

  4. Dori

    “It’s so … PRETTY.”

  5. bujin

    Is the telescope hoping to catch UFOs, or are they hoping to take an image of “Tranquility Base” to prove that men never went to the moon?

  6. Trebuchet

    @#2: Probably more of an artifact with the sensor than with the optics.

    @ #1 & #5: Yeah, I’m not a big fan of Discovery Communications either.

  7. Aaron

    @5. bujin: I believe that you are thinking of the “History” Channel. Give Discovery some credit–at least they are trying!

  8. Jess Tauber

    It occurs to me that spiral galaxies, but especially the barred versions, may function as balance wheels in gigantic watch movements. Now all we have to do is find the fast and slow settings, and the winder.

  9. Trebuchet

    @ #8: Discovery Communications, parent company of the Discovery Channel, is home to much of the worst dreck on TV. They own a LOT of cable channels, including Discovery, TLC (formerly, but no longer, The Learning Channel), Animal Planet, The Science Channel, and Oprah! Take “Mermaids — The Body Found”, recently broadcast on Animal Planet. Please!

    Yes, they did give Phil a show about real science a couple of years ago. And proceeded to bury it in favor of the usual junk. Even Mythbusters has degenerated into pretty much nothing but “Jamie wants big boom.”

    So no, I don’t think they’re trying. Except for my patience.

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminously breath-taking first light image. I love it! Congratulations! ūüėÄ

  11. MadScientist

    “… our understand will only grow.”

    Hmm. Your website are belong to us.

  12. Infinite123Lifer

    Near-Infared Galaxy Morphology is cool.

    Jess are you implying the Universe is one gigantic watch? If so, we don’t have the time for that stuff around here. ūüėÄ

  13. Tim

    Woah! click through the image and check out the Sombrero Galaxy image! At the right side of the image (near the vertical middle) there’s a star with what appears to be two objects in orbit around it.

    Of course, it isn’t. But beyond the absolute majesty of the galaxy it’s a nice distraction.

  14. Calli Arcale

    Give them *some* credit. Yeah, they run crap during the day (like everybody) but they also produce shows like “Through the Wormhole” and “The Planets” and co-produce stuff with BBC Worldwide like “Planet Earth”. Yes, they do run crap. So does everybody. But they do not run exclusively crap, unlike a lot of other channels.

    Mythbusters? I think they’ve basically run out of material, and that’s why they’re in the Jamie Want Big Boom phase. They’re still very entertaining to me, but yeah, the actual science has gotten less interesting of late. They picked all the low-hanging fruit already. I loved their moon landing episode, though. ūüėČ Never has there been a better rebuttal of the shadow nonsense.

  15. Matt B.

    M109 seems so flat, like a photograph seen obliquely.

  16. @ #2: An artifact of the focusing optics, and the Earth’s atmosphere. How a point-like star is spread out by the optics is termed the “point spread function.” ( Atmospheric turbulence and related effects fall under the term “seeing.” (

  17. I hate what the former science and education channels have turned into! Even the “better” shows (“Through the Wormhole”, etc.) have way too much glitz and nonsense for my taste. So much so that I find nearly all of them unwatchable.

    I am very, very, VERY grateful for science blogs such as this!

  18. dirk benedict

    Oh please, I can see that from my Manhattan apartment without a scope.

  19. Manny

    I agree with some of you who say that Discovery Channel has lost it’s way.
    I remember watching some good science and nature programs on DC and TLC.
    Now it seems that everything is a reality show. The Science Channel still has
    some good programs but I find myself watching more and more of H2.
    Hopefully the DCT will help them get back to their roots.

  20. So glad science is progressing at this astounding rate. This is an amazing time. No complaints form me.

  21. Savatage

    1. I suspect that any of several factors may contribute to stars becoming disks: being first light, fine adjustments are still to be expected: CCD’s, AO, etc. OR something as simple as transforming the electronic image to print quality, or better yet the limits of flat screen optics. We need to see what the future brings, if it is an expensive lemon. (I certainly hope not!)
    2.We’ve seen how it’s made, but not how it being paid for. Is it paid for, or is it a gamble of loans & collateral yet to be fully paid. Who decides who can use it? Maybe someone is still looking for the Martian Canals?


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