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Telescope opens a brand new window on Discovery

Lowell Observatory / DCT

One of the "first light" images from the Discovery Channel Telescope's 16-million-pixel camera shows the spiral barred galaxy M109.

If the Lowell Observatory's Discovery Channel Telescope were a Discovery Channel documentary, it'd be a blockbuster: an extravaganza that was a decade in the making, at a cost of $53 million. That's twice as much as it cost to produce the "Planet Earth" TV series.

Now the Discovery Channel Telescope has finally made its star-studded debut with the unveiling of "first light" images at a Saturday night gala in Arizona. Among the guests of honor: first moonwalker Neil Armstrong.

For any big telescope, first light is the equivalent of a premiere party, and the three images released this weekend are certainly worthy of the star treatment. My colleague at Discovery News, Ian O'Neill, provides the big pictures for M109, a barred spiral galaxy that's 84 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major; the Sombrero Galaxy, also known as M104, which is 30 million light-years away in Virgo; and the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, 23 million light-years away in Canes Venatici.

This is just the start of the show: The 14-foot (4.3-meter) DCT, built at a site 45 miles southeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., ranks as the fifth-largest telescope in the continental United States. The telescope's naming rights went to the Discovery Channel thanks to a multimillion-dollar contribution from the family of John Hendricks, founder and chairman of Discovery Communications.

As nice as the current 16-megapixel images look, the view will get even nicer once the 36-megapixel Large Monolithic Imager, funded by the National Science Foundation, comes on board. Structured scientific research is due to begin in 2013 or 2014, after commissioning and testing. 

The DCT is designed to be a flexible astronomical instrument, well-suited for extragalactic observations as well as the hunt for worlds on the icy rim of our own solar system. That latter task is particularly fitting, because it was at the Lowell Observatory that the first object in the solar system's icy Kuiper Belt was discovered in 1930. The object was none other than Pluto, the dwarf planet that everyone's been fussing over for the past few years or so.

Pluto's discovery made the Lowell Observatory famous, and with time, the Discovery Channel Telescope will no doubt do the same.

More about the telescopic frontier:

Discovery Channel will air a documentary about the making of the Discovery Channel Telescope in early September.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.