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Traveling through space with a giant telescope

World's largest telescope one step closer to completion 01:53

Not all explorers travel with their physical bodies. Astronomers like Pat McCarthy venture forth with their eyes only.

"For me, I just want to know, 'Where am I? Where do I live?'" he said. "And in some sense, if you keep asking that question, it keeps getting bigger and bigger until you get out all the way to the observable universe. And that for me is just endlessly fascinating."

The Magellan telescope will be completed in 2022 CBS News
 That fascination began with a 10th birthday present.

"I got this little two-inch refractor, it's a little lens telescope, and I took it out in the backyard, just pointed up to a star just at random and it turned out that it wasn't a star, it was Saturn," McCarthy said.

Now 52, he has graduated to bigger telescopes. Much bigger. 

This week, a team at the University of Arizona finished work on one of its giant mirrors -- 20 tons of heated glass. The glass of each mirror is melted in an oven for four months.

"We're going to have seven of them in a structure that weighs 1,200 tons," he said.

When completed in 2022, those seven mirrors, each measuring 27 feet across, will give astronomers 10 times the power of the Hubble telescope. For the first time, planets outside our solar system will be visible.

Pat McCarthy CBS News
 The Magellan will allow McCarthy and his team of international astronomers to peer into far away places, from its own far away place -- a remote mountaintop in Chile.

"It is a fabulous place that's dark, excellent images, great weather and we have the benefit that the center of the Milky Way galaxy goes right overhead," he said.

Until then, this intergalactic traveler waits, as his ship to the stars is built.

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