“Only beasts could remain indifferent to the origin, structure and fate of the cosmos in which they live.”
—Astrophysicist M. Disney
Today, the Keck telescopes are used to seek answers to ancient questions: How did the universe evolve since creation to its present state? How, and when, did galaxies form? What is the rate of star formation in galaxies far away, and far back in time? How much does the expansion rate of the Universe vary over history? How do solar systems form? Where is the missing mass of the Universe? What is the ultimate fate of the Universe? In just the past few years, astronomers at the W. M. Keck Observatory have made tremendous progress in answering these and other questions. Among numerous research projects, Keck astronomers are using gravitational lenses to discover galaxies at the edge of the Universe; using supernovaes to determine the expansion rate of the Universe; searching for atomic gases in the immense regions of space between galaxies; helping to solve the riddle of gamma ray bursts and discovering planets around other stars.
The next phase of the W. M. Keck Observatory is underway as teams of scientists and engineers continue work on improving the Keck Interferometer. The Keck-Keck Interferometer combines the light of both Keck telescopes to obtain a tenfold increase in resolution. It is a significant cornerstone of NASA’s “Origins” program, which ultimately seeks to identify and characterize planets around Sun-like stars. The interferometer will also help astronomers detect giant gas planets, measure and characterize planet-forming dust around stars and obtain extremely high-resolution images of protoplanetary disks. It has already produced significant results, including observations of a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy (NGC 4151) more than 40 million light years away.
An altitude-azimuth design gives each 10-meter Keck telescope the optimal balance of mass and strength. Extensive computer analysis determined the greatest strength and stiffness for the least amount of steel- about 270 tons per telescope. This is critically important, and not only for economic reasons. A large telescope must remain resistant to the deforming forces of gravity as it tracks objects moving across the night sky.