On the road: The Colossus Telescope meeting in Alberta, Canada, summary

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, September 10, 2012

The Colossus Project's co-founder Caisey Harlingten opens the first session September 5, 2012, with some inspirational words. // All photos by David J. Eicher
I just returned to Milwaukee over the weekend after participating in a fascinating conference in Alberta, Canada. As I mentioned last week, I went to Waterton Lakes National Park far south of Calgary, near the United States border, to visit with 15 astronomers, physicists, and engineers. The subject was the Colossus Project, an incredible venture that will seek funding for and attempt to build the world’s largest telescope, a 74-meter giant.

The project was the idea of entrepreneur and astronomy enthusiast Caisey Harlingten, a really interesting fellow whose laid-back style contrasts with the precise knowledge of the field and worldly wisdom he displays over a casual dinner. A Vancouver native, Harlingten is founder and president of the SearchLight Observatory Network. Engaged in several telescope projects some years ago, Harlingten met and befriended astronomer Jeff Kuhn of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy — another energetic, brilliant fellow, who now serves as the Colossus Project Leader.

The first morning of the Colossus talks featured overall discussions about the possibility of building the world's largest telescope.
Our meetings about the telescope lasted for three days, and Astronomy Senior Editor Michael Bakich joined me in midstream to cover the meeting’s final day on his own. The plan is to construct a telescope so large and with such high resolution that it will accomplish staggering scientific goals. I will write much more about these later. For the moment, let me say that the general plan is to raise $5 million in seed money and then seek contributions that may exceed $1 billion in order to complete the project.

The overall plan is to build an instrument that has approximately a 74-meter total aperture (perhaps sixty 8-meter mirrors) in a segmented design. It will take full advantage of adaptive optics and the latest in optical technology, structural design, and innovations of physics, to minimize the overall cost and the telescope’s overall size.

Project leader Jeff Kuhn of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy shows off a thin mirror blank from the maker who could provide the Colossus telescope mirror segments.
The team includes a heady list of experts: astronomers Kuhn, Svetlana Berdyugina of the Kiepenheuer Institute for Solar Physics, Olivier Guyon of the University of Arizona, Shoichi Okano of Tohoku University, Pete Worden of NASA-Ames, physicist Joe Ritter of the University of Hawaii’s IfA, optics experts Gil Moretto and Maud Langlois of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. Stanley Truitt and Peter Wangsness of Wangsness Optics, engineers Steve Griffin of Boeing, David Halliday of Dynamic Structures, Mauricio de Oliveira of the University of California-San Diego (UCSD), Robert Skelton also of UCSD, and attorney Randy Marusyk.

This formidable team examined the possibilities of this project from the very large-scale to the minute details of optics and engineering over the three days. I will have much more to report on later, as this work begins to build momentum. For now, I’ll share the vision statement of the project: “To become passionate about building the world’s largest telescope and, after having achieved this passion, to develop and propagate the scientific and other attributes that make this something humankind must have.”

The Colossus project meeting took place amid the rugged and beautiful scenery of Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada, just north of Glacier National Park.
Stay tuned. Exciting times are ahead.

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