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Largest optical telescope now operating

The world's most powerful optical telescope is now operating on southeastern Arizona's Mount Graham, capturing striking images of objects millions of light years away.
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This image taken by the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham, Ariz., shows a spiral galaxy 102 million light years away. Large Binocular Camera Team / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The world's most powerful optical telescope is now operating on southeastern Arizona's Mount Graham, capturing striking images of objects millions of light years away.

The Large Binocular Telescope — featuring two 27.6-foot-diameter mirrors that together gather more light and have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope — took its first images using both mirrors last year. The first images were released to the public on Thursday.

There are huge telescopes that operate in other parts of the spectrum — from low-frequency radio waves to far beyond visible light — but no traditional telescope is more powerful.

"For five to 10 years, we will be in the business of taking the sharpest pictures from the ground," astronomer Hans-Walter Rix said.

The telescope is the $120 million crown jewel of the University of Arizona's Mount Graham International Observatory. The telescope is the third atop the 10,500-foot peak, including the Heinrich-Hertz Submillimeter Telescope and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

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The newest addition to the observatory took more than 20 years to develop and weathered funding uncertainty, threatening forest fires and lawsuits from environmental groups and Indian tribes.

The new telescope is overseen by an international consortium that includes institutions in Germany and Italy.

German institutions have a 25 percent share of the telescope, as do a group of Italian institutions and Arizona's three state universities. Ohio State University has a 12.5 percent share, as does Tucson-based Research Corp., which includes the universities of Notre Dame, Minnesota and Virginia.

Astronomers are allocated time depending on their group's percentage interest in the project.
Scientists hope the telescope will lead to discoveries of previously unknown planets and stars and help them learn more about the solar system and distant galaxies.