When you’re using the world’s largest telescope, anyway.
By J.B.

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It’s July, and Brian May, lead guitarist for the ’70s megaband Queen, is slaving away on a new project called “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” For inspiration, he’s spending time on a mountaintop on the Spanish island of La Palma in the Canary Islands.

But “Radial Velocities” isn’t the name of a new song he’s writing; it’s the title of the thesis he’s penning in order to earn his PhD in astrophysics. And what’s atop that mountain isn’t a recording studio but the Roque de los Muchachos observatory, where May is studying and observing the formation of the zodiacal dust cloud, an orbiting veil of interplanetary particles formed primarily by asteroid collisions and debris from comets.

The observatory also happens to be home to one of the newest and most powerful telescopes in the world — the Gran Telescopio Canarias, a.k.a. the GranTeCan. This $179 million astronomical marvel, a project 20 years in the making, opened its shutters for the first time in July and is expected to be fully operational by May 2008. Its vantage point of more than 7,800 feet above sea level is in one of the most stable atmospheres on the planet and allows 12 of the telescope’s eventual 36 mirrors to focus on the night sky with a nearly unrivaled precision.

When the GranTeCan becomes fully operational next spring, it will be able to focus on the weakest and most distant objects in the universe. “With this [telescope], it will be possible to capture the birth of new stars, to study more profoundly the characteristics of black holes, and to decipher the chemical components generated by the big bang,” says a spokesperson for the acclaimed Canary Institute, which oversees the project.

There to celebrate the telescope’s official grand opening next year — and to unleash what’s sure to be a new and exciting look at the final frontier — will, of course, be Brian May. In fact, he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a musical score for the festivities. Rock on.