Image: NASA

Last Monday, the two 10-meter telescopes at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea passed a big testproving that the starlight they collect can be successfully combined. In this way, the twins, christened the Keck Interferometer, become the most powerful optical telescope yet (see image). Both focused on HD61294 in the Lynx constellation, and adaptive optics removed any distortion caused by Earth's atmosphere. The separate light waves from the faint star were then processed and combined by an optical system in an underground tunnel running between the two telescopes.

"This is a major step in the creation of a whole new class of astronomical telescopes that will have an enormous impact on future knowledge," said Paul Swanson, the Keck Interferometer project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Historically, breakthrough technologies like the Hale 5-meter and the Hubble Space telescopes have made discoveries way beyond the purpose for which they were originally built." Testing will continue for the next several months, but researchers plan to begin using the Keck Interferometer for scientific purposes this fall. In particular, they hope that it will help in the search for extrasolar planets.