For millennia, naval navigators have relied on the stars to guide them.
The U.S. Navy's ships are sophisticated well beyond the sextant and spotting scope, but they still rely on the stars to guide them -- if indirectly.
Lowell Observatory manages the Navy Optical Interferometer on Anderson Mesa south of Flagstaff on behalf of the military.
Its mission is largely secretive, but the instrument is used to take very precise measurements of star locations for things like the Global Positioning Satellite system. They also track the satellites of other countries.
Whereas a traditional telescope uses one primary mirror to collect light for each image, the interferometer consists of an array of telescopes spread over a third of square mile. The light from each telescope is combined into a single beam that creates a high-resolution image equivalent to the area covered by the array.
Currently, each of the telescope mirrors is very small. That means that while the instrument collects very precise information on the stars it does study, NOI is only capable of seeing stars slightly fainter than what a human can see with their naked eye.
Four 1.8-meter mirrors were just given to the Navy, though, which would enable astronomers to see incredibly fainter objects and give the instrument a much better view of passing satellites.
They don't have the funds to install the mirrors yet, but Lowell hopes they will be able to find the funds soon.
That would greatly increase the sensitivity of the instrument," said Lowell Observatory Director Jeff Hall.
Under its operating contract, Lowell receives 45 to 50 nights a year to use the instrument for their own research. The new mirrors would make the instrument much more useful for Lowell's astronomical research.
The observatory also recently received a new camera in December, called VISION, from Tennessee State University.
"The VISION instrument will provide a modern camera for the Navy Optical Interferometer, allowing it to combine six small telescopes as one monster telescope," said Lowell astronomer Gerard van Belle. "This will allow VISION to make snapshot images of the surfaces of nearby stars, at a resolution roughly 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than possible with a single large telescope."
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.