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Dawn of a telescope: Keck gets first images.


For astronomers growing up in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, one telescope symbolized the ultimate in viewing the distant reaches of the universe: the 5-meter Hale Telescope on Mt. Palomar. Now a new instrument has claimed the crown as the largest optical telescope in the world. Perched atop an extinct Hawaiian volcano, the 10-meter W.M. Keck Telescope made its debut in March, using a nearinfrared camera to study the heavens.

Last week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Berkeley, Calif., astronomers displayed Keck's first research images. None reveals major new discoveries, but the telescope's unusual optics - a mosaic of 36 mirrors that acts as a single 10-meter mirror- have probed gravitational lenses, clistant galaxies, and quasars in unprecedented detail, says Jerry Nelson, director of the Keck Observatory.

Keck's near-infrared image of 4C41.17, the most distant galaxy known, reveals that at least five faint bodies surround it. If spectroscopic studies with Keck show that the objects lie at the same distance as 4C41.17, some 12 billion light-years from Earth, their proximity on the sky to 4C41.17 would suggest they are companion galaxies that will eventually merge, says James R. Graham of the University of California, Berkeley.

Spectroscopy should indicate the age of stars in these companions, he notes. If the companions are indeed as distant as 4C41.17, they would appear through the telescope as they did when the cosmos was just 10 to 25 percent of its current age. And if such galaxies contained stars 1 to 2 billion years old, this might set a new minimum age for the universe and pinpoint when most galaxies formed.

Keck's infrared view of another galaxy. one that ranks among the most luminous objects ever observed, may shed new light on the origin of its radiation. The image shows that some of the radiation comes from an elongated region, rather than a point-like source indicative of a quasar, reports Keith Matthews of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Although the finding doesn't rule out a quasar, it supports previous observations that a burst of star formation contributes to the luminosity of the galaxy, known as FSC10214+4724, Matthews says. He adds that wing-like structures near the galaxy's edge may indicate a stream of stars and gas torn off by a collision with one or more other galaxies.

Nelson says the Keck Telescope will have its five detectors in place by the end of the year. Visible-light studies will begin this summer.
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Title Annotation:images from the W.M. Keck Telescope
Author:Pendick, Daniel
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 19, 1993
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