Telescopes With Liquid Mirrors Go Mainstream

Liquid mirror telescopes have been in limited use for two decades, but only now are they finally seeing the beginnings of wider acceptance in the astronomical community.

(The Large Zenith Telescope's 6-meter liquid mercury mirror)

The largest, the 6-meter Large Zenith Telescope (LZT) operated by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, stands on a hilltop in a research forest some 40 miles east of the city.

“At the LZT, our ability to do astronomy is limited by weather and sky conditions,” said Paul Hickson, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and the LZT’s project director.

As a result, the project focuses on atmospheric measurements that support advanced optics testing on planned conventional world-class, ground-based telescopes.

Unlike large glass mirrors which are subject to the vagaries of humidity, thermal dynamics and constant deformation from gravity itself, liquid mercury — which remains molten at room temperature — can reflect as much as 75 percent of incoming starlight with little of the fuss associated with large conventional mirrors.

However, liquid mirrors must rotate. When rotating, the forces of nature keep the thin layer of liquid mercury in the shape of a parabola. That’s the shape needed for the liquid mirror to be able to collect and focus incoming starlight.

And the rotation has to be both continuous and at a constant speed, which for the LZT is 8.5 revolutions per minute. If the mirror stops rotating for even a fraction of a second, it loses its parabolic shape, says Ermanno Borra, an astrophysicist at Quebec’s Laval University and a longtime advocate for liquid mirror technology.

Although Isaac Newton was the first to note that the free surface of a rotating liquid forms a curve that could be used to concentrate light for a telescope, science fiction writers brought it to readers attention over the years. During the Golden Age of science fiction, Raymond Z. Gallun describes a liquid mirror telescope on Mars in his 1934 story Old Faithful.

Via Forbes; thanks to Winchell Chung of Project Rho for the tip on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 1/21/2013)

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