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Photo: MMTO

Star-chitecure through the centuries

“Astronomers continually desire telescopes of larger and larger light grasp to reach ever fainter objects.” (Aden B. Meinel, architect of the MMTO)

Humankind has tried to mould its understanding of heaven, eternity, infinity and utter ‘beyondness’ in solid mass ever since its existence. Stonehenge, the Mayan Pyramids and Medieval churches are all trying to prove an unbreakable bond between Earth and Heaven. Immediately after Galileo optimized the essentials of refractor telescope technology (multiple lenses) in 1609 - an invention that is claimed by no less than three Dutchmen around 1608 - , the first thing he did was point it towards the sky. The instrument that allows us to look literally into space has determined the physical appearance of observatories through the centuries. Today, they do not even have to be on Earth…

The groundbreaking design of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope by Myron Goldsmith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) completed in 1962, was described by president John F. Kennedy as “a source of pride to the nation.” Located at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, it was the world’s largest solar telescope at the time. The structure is comprised of a nearly 100 ft tower from which a shaft slants 200 ft to the ground. As SOM describes, the shaft continues into the mountain, forming an underground tunnel where the sun is viewed at the prime focus. The structure of this astronomical observatory was engineered to shelter the telescope from mountaintop winds, utilizing a square form tilted at a 45-degree angle. Both the tower and the light tunnel stand freely inside water-cooled protective concrete casings. Along with advancing the understanding of the sun, the much-photographed telescope has become an example of outdoor monumental sculpture.

The next generation of telescope design, James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is pushing the boundaries of technology even further, as it is set to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in 2021. JWST - a large infra-red telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror that will provide greatly improved resolution and sensitivity – is an engineering feat in which NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) work closely together in a team of over 1,200 scientists. “Webb will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System”, says NASA.

The next stage of telescope and astronomical observatory design will take us even farther out into space in our search for answers about how the Universe began. As technology continues to advance, we have yet to see how architecture will shape these new star-gazing structures.

Read the full story on: Roca Gallery - Star-chitecture

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