From The University of Arizona: “A discoverer of worlds in Arizona’s backyard” 

From The University of Arizona

Daniel Stolte

Arizona is home to one of the world’s most advanced cosmic discovery machines: the Large Binocular Telescope. Sporting two 27-foot mirrors made at the University of Arizona, its unique design allows astronomers to make observations that would not be possible even with advanced space telescopes.

Tucked away in the southeastern corner of Arizona, perched at nearly 11,000 feet on Mount Graham, the tallest of the state’s “sky island” mountains, sits a marvel of engineering like none other in the world. The aptly named Large Binocular Telescope is the world’s largest optical telescope, and the only one of its kind. It resembles a pair of binoculars, as it boasts two round mirrors, each spanning 8.4 meters, or just over 27 feet. Managed by the University of Arizona, the LBT is a discovery machine that has allowed astronomers to glimpse cosmic phenomena close to home – such as lava lakes on one of Jupiter’s moons – and all the way to the farthest reaches of the universe.

The LBT surpasses even NASA’s new flagship space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, in its resolving power – an astronomers’ term to describe sharpness of vision – and serves as a test bed for the most advanced and ambitious technology that will fuel the next generation of Extremely Large Telescopes.

Joseph Shields, who recently took the helm as director of the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, talked to University of Arizona News about the telescope’s importance in past and future discoveries, and its critical role in paving the way for the future of astronomy. Before joining The University of Arizona, Shields chaired the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Ohio University, where he also served as vice president for research and creative activity and dean of the Graduate College. During a NASA Hubble Fellowship at University of Arizona, Shields embarked on a career studying the physics of supermassive black holes; the makeup of the interstellar medium and the lives and deaths of stars.

Q: What makes the LBT special?

A: The LBT is arguably the most powerful optical telescope in the world at the current time. A telescope’s ability to measure objects in the universe is determined by its size. The more light-collecting area a telescope has, the better it is at detecting faint cosmic sources. In the case of the LBT, the combined collecting area of its two mirrors is equivalent to a single mirror with a diameter of 11.8 meters, larger than any other single optical telescope in existence today.

A telescope’s size is also important for determining its ability to distinguish fine detail and resolve objects that are close together on the sky, as in the case of a planet orbiting a distant star. For the LBT, the relevant dimension that determines this resolving power is the distance between the outer edges of its two mirrors, which is 23 meters, or 75 feet. While a few other observatories can combine the light from separate telescopes to achieve greater resolving power, the LBT is unique in achieving this with mirrors attached to the same mount.

An interesting comparison can be made with the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST has understandably wowed astronomers and the public with its images, and, like Hubble, benefits from being in space, unaffected by Earth’s atmosphere. But while producing wide-field images revealing remarkable detail of faint sources, JWST still has the resolving power of a 6-meter telescope, far less than the LBT’s 23-meter baseline. Because of this, the LBT retains a unique capability for resolving fine details in bright sources, such as nearby young stars surrounded by disks of gas and dust where planets are forming.

Q: Can you tell us about the location of the LBT and why it was selected?

A: The Large Binocular Telescope is located on Mount Graham, approximately 70 miles northeast of Tucson near the town of Safford. The site was chosen because of its dark sky and climate and atmospheric conditions favorable for producing sharp images. The observing conditions benefit from the site’s altitude of 10,500 feet, which is among the highest for observatories in North America. The LBT is part of the Mount Graham International Observatory, which also hosts the Arizona Radio Observatory Submillimeter Telescope and Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.

Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, U Arizona Steward Observatory, Altitude, 792 meters (2,598 ft)

Q: How long has LBT been there and who uses it?

A: Construction of the telescope began in 1997, and the first observations were acquired in 2005 with one of the telescope’s two 8.4-meter-diameter mirrors. Observations with both mirrors began in 2007. The LBT Observatory is funded by an international consortium of research institutions and universities in Germany, Italy and the United States, including the University of Arizona. Observations are conducted by staff and students at the partner institutions. The observatory is staffed by U of A employees, with personnel based in Tucson and Safford. We typically have at least three staff members on site, including a telescope operator who points the telescope at whatever the source of interest may be. The scientists can conduct observations either on site, from their institutions and even from home.

Q: What are some of the telescope’s most notable discoveries?

A: A remarkable demonstration of the LBT’s unique capabilities for high-resolution studies was a study of Io, the innermost of the four moons of Jupiter discovered by famous Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.

In this image of Jupiter’s moon Io taken by the LBT, a lake of molten lava shines brightly on the left, while fainter spots indicate other active volcanic areas on the small world, which is just slightly bigger than Earth’s moon. LBTO.

Io is known to be volcanically active, and observations made with the LBT revealed temperature variations across a lava lake on Io, tracing the heating and flow of molten rock on the moon’s surface. It’s the only example where this level of volcanic detail has been directly observed on a world other than our own.

A second important finding relates to the local environments of stars like the sun, measured by combining the light from the LBT’s mirrors in a manner that cancels out the light from the star, revealing surrounding disks of gas similar to the interplanetary dust in our solar system. The LBT played an important role in a large NASA-funded project, where it was tasked to find out how much dust encircles other sun-like stars and whether it would interfere with detecting planets. Fortunately, it turns out that most stars do not have disks of very bright dust that would interfere with studying exoplanets.

Another very interesting study has used the telescope to investigate the deaths of stars and the formation of black holes. A star considerably more massive than our sun will eventually exhaust the fuel in its core, which can then collapse to form a black hole. The resulting release of gravitational energy typically produces a phenomenal explosion of the outer parts of the star that we witness as a supernova. An intriguing idea suggests that the most massive stars may undergo core collapse to form a black hole without the visible fireworks. It would be a stealthy way to form black holes. A survey with the LBT has turned up candidates for such “failed supernovae” that provide clues to how often they may occur.

Q: What contributions can we expect from LBT in the future?

A: The LBT has been, and continues to be, a leader in innovation enabling astronomical discovery. Lessons learned and technologies developed at the LBT are now benefitting a new generation of Extremely Large Telescopes, or ELTs, under construction [above]. These new facilities, with equivalent aperture diameters of 25 to 39 meters – 82 to 128 feet – will begin operation in the late 2020s. The Giant Magellan Telescope [above], which, like the LBT, will use 8.4-meter mirrors developed at the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, is part of the new generation. There is a direct connection between the technical solutions embodied in this new crop of observatories and innovation pioneered at the LBT, so we say that the Large Binocular Telescope is in fact the first of the ELTs. The cost of instruments for the larger ELTs is jaw-dropping, and the LBT will remain competitive as a facility where new instrumentation and technical innovations can be piloted to drive a broad range of scientific discovery.

Q: What has you most excited about your new role as LBT director?

A: Definitely the unique capabilities of this telescope and its ability to do science that we couldn’t do at any other facility. Through most of this decade, the LBT will remain singular in its combination of light collecting and resolving power. Our partner institutions are developing a new generation of instruments optimized for high angular resolution studies that will contribute across many areas of science, and in the study of extrasolar planets in particular. In my own research, I study the impact of supermassive black holes on the surroundings in their host galaxies. The LBT’s exceptional angular resolution allows us to discern details at very small scales, within the clouds of gas that surround these supermassive black holes. We want to understand these extreme environments, where we know material is being swallowed and huge amounts of energy are radiated as a result, but much work is still needed to understand these processes.

Q: How can people learn more about this facility?

A: Tours of the Mount Graham International Observatory are offered in cooperation with Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus but have been on hiatus due to the pandemic. We hope to be able to restart tours within the next year.

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As of 2019, the The University of Arizona enrolled 45,918 students in 19 separate colleges/schools, including The University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson and Phoenix and the James E. Rogers College of Law, and is affiliated with two academic medical centers (Banner – University Medical Center Tucson and Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix). The University of Arizona is one of three universities governed by the Arizona Board of Regents. The university is part of the Association of American Universities and is the only member from Arizona, and also part of the Universities Research Association . The university is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity”.

Known as the Arizona Wildcats (often shortened to “Cats”), The University of Arizona’s intercollegiate athletic teams are members of the Pac-12 Conference of the NCAA. The University of Arizona athletes have won national titles in several sports, most notably men’s basketball, baseball, and softball. The official colors of the university and its athletic teams are cardinal red and navy blue.

After the passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, the push for a university in Arizona grew. The Arizona Territory’s “Thieving Thirteenth” Legislature approved The University of Arizona in 1885 and selected the city of Tucson to receive the appropriation to build the university. Tucson hoped to receive the appropriation for the territory’s mental hospital, which carried a $100,000 allocation instead of the $25,000 allotted to the territory’s only university Arizona State University was also chartered in 1885, but it was created as Arizona’s normal school, and not a university). Flooding on the Salt River delayed Tucson’s legislators, and by the time they reached Prescott, back-room deals allocating the most desirable territorial institutions had been made. Tucson was largely disappointed with receiving what was viewed as an inferior prize.

With no parties willing to provide land for the new institution, the citizens of Tucson prepared to return the money to the Territorial Legislature until two gamblers and a saloon keeper decided to donate the land to build the school. Construction of Old Main, the first building on campus, began on October 27, 1887, and classes met for the first time in 1891 with 32 students in Old Main, which is still in use today. Because there were no high schools in Arizona Territory, the university maintained separate preparatory classes for the first 23 years of operation.


The University of Arizona is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. UArizona is the fourth most awarded public university by National Aeronautics and Space Administration for research. The University of Arizona was awarded over $325 million for its Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) to lead NASA’s 2007–08 mission to Mars to explore the Martian Arctic, and $800 million for its OSIRIS-REx mission, the first in U.S. history to sample an asteroid.

National Aeronautics Space Agency OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft.

The LPL’s work in the Cassini spacecraft orbit around Saturn is larger than any other university globally.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration/European Space Agency [La Agencia Espacial Europea][Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU)/ASI Italian Space Agency [Agenzia Spaziale Italiana](IT) Cassini Spacecraft.

The University of Arizona laboratory designed and operated the atmospheric radiation investigations and imaging on the probe. The University of Arizona operates the HiRISE camera, a part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

U Arizona NASA Mars Reconnaisance HiRISE Camera.

NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

While using the HiRISE camera in 2011, University of Arizona alumnus Lujendra Ojha and his team discovered proof of liquid water on the surface of Mars—a discovery confirmed by NASA in 2015. The University of Arizona receives more NASA grants annually than the next nine top NASA/JPL-Caltech-funded universities combined. As of March 2016, The University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory is actively involved in ten spacecraft missions: Cassini VIMS; Grail; the HiRISE camera orbiting Mars; the Juno mission orbiting Jupiter; Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO); Maven, which will explore Mars’ upper atmosphere and interactions with the sun; Solar Probe Plus, a historic mission into the Sun’s atmosphere for the first time; Rosetta’s VIRTIS; WISE; and OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. sample-return mission to a near-earth asteroid, which launched on September 8, 2016.

NASA – GRAIL Flying in Formation (Artist’s Concept). Credit: NASA.
National Aeronautics Space Agency Juno at Jupiter.

NASA/Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.


NASA Parker Solar Probe Plus named to honor Pioneering Physicist Eugene Parker. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Wise/NEOWISE Telescope.

The University of Arizona students have been selected as Truman, Rhodes, Goldwater, and Fulbright Scholars. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, UArizona is among the top 25 producers of Fulbright awards in the U.S.

The University of Arizona is a member of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy , a consortium of institutions pursuing research in astronomy. The association operates observatories and telescopes, notably Kitt Peak National Observatory just outside Tucson.

National Science Foundation NOIRLab National Optical Astronomy Observatory Kitt Peak National Observatory on Kitt Peak of the Quinlan Mountains in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert on the Tohono O’odham Nation, 88 kilometers (55 mi) west-southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Altitude 2,096 m (6,877 ft). annotated.

Led by Roger Angel, researchers in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at The University of Arizona are working in concert to build the world’s most advanced telescope. Known as the Giant Magellan Telescope (CL), it will produce images 10 times sharper than those from the Earth-orbiting Hubble Telescope.

GMT Giant Magellan Telescope(CL) 21 meters, to be at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s NOIRLab NOAO Las Campanas Observatory(CL), some 115 km (71 mi) north-northeast of La Serena, Chile, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high.

The telescope is set to be completed in 2021. GMT will ultimately cost $1 billion. Researchers from at least nine institutions are working to secure the funding for the project. The telescope will include seven 18-ton mirrors capable of providing clear images of volcanoes and riverbeds on Mars and mountains on the moon at a rate 40 times faster than the world’s current large telescopes. The mirrors of the Giant Magellan Telescope will be built at The University of Arizona and transported to a permanent mountaintop site in the Chilean Andes where the telescope will be constructed.

Reaching Mars in March 2006, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter contained the HiRISE camera, with Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen as the lead on the project. This National Aeronautics and Space Agency mission to Mars carrying the UArizona-designed camera is capturing the highest-resolution images of the planet ever seen. The journey of the orbiter was 300 million miles. In August 2007, The University of Arizona, under the charge of Scientist Peter Smith, led the Phoenix Mars Mission, the first mission completely controlled by a university. Reaching the planet’s surface in May 2008, the mission’s purpose was to improve knowledge of the Martian Arctic. The Arizona Radio Observatory , a part of The University of Arizona Department of Astronomy Steward Observatory , operates the Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham.

University of Arizona Radio Observatory at NOAO Kitt Peak National Observatory, AZ USA, U Arizona Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory at altitude 2,096 m (6,877 ft).

Kitt Peak National Observatory in the Arizona-Sonoran Desert 88 kilometers 55 mi west-southwest of Tucson, Arizona in the Quinlan Mountains of the Tohono O’odham Nation, altitude 2,096 m (6,877 ft)

The National Science Foundation funded the iPlant Collaborative in 2008 with a $50 million grant. In 2013, iPlant Collaborative received a $50 million renewal grant. Rebranded in late 2015 as “CyVerse”, the collaborative cloud-based data management platform is moving beyond life sciences to provide cloud-computing access across all scientific disciplines.

In June 2011, the university announced it would assume full ownership of the Biosphere 2 scientific research facility in Oracle, Arizona, north of Tucson, effective July 1. Biosphere 2 was constructed by private developers (funded mainly by Texas businessman and philanthropist Ed Bass) with its first closed system experiment commencing in 1991. The university had been the official management partner of the facility for research purposes since 2007.

U Arizona mirror lab-Where else in the world can you find an astronomical observatory mirror lab under a football stadium?

University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2, located in the Sonoran desert. An entire ecosystem under a glass dome? Visit our campus, just once, and you’ll quickly understand why The University of Arizona is a university unlike any other.

University of Arizona Landscape Evolution Observatory at Biosphere 2.