University to help construct world’s most powerful telescope

Scientists are hoping to learn more about the possibility of life on other planets, the origin of stars and the inner workings of the universe by building the most powerful telescope in the world.

UT and 10 other founder organizations will partner with the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization to lead the charge in gaining a better understanding of the universe. According to GMTO’s website, the telescope will employ a system of seven 12.5 ton mirrors to capture images up to 10 times sharper than that of the Hubble Telescope’s. The Giant Magellan Telescope will have the ability to reveal objects never before seen in space. 

“GMT will be the first in a new class of extremely large telescopes, capable of exploring the cosmos with unprecedented clarity and sensitivity,” said Patrick McCarthy, director of the GMTO. “The GMT will peer back in time to shortly after the Big Bang, when the first stars, galaxies and black holes formed.”

According to McDonald Observatory Director Taft Armandroff, who serves as UT’s representative for the project, the University will assist in planning and constructing parts of the telescope, as well as in carrying out much of the research the telescope will enable. Armandroff and other GMT scientists hope that this telescope will explain when the first stars formed after the Big Bang and what properties make up the
atmospheres of planets orbiting nearby stars. 

“GMT’s properties are highly aligned with the scientific aspirations of UT astronomy professors and researchers,” Armandroff said in an email. “Being a partner in GMT, which is a resource that very few universities have, will help UT to attract the best students, faculty and researchers in astronomy.”

On June 3, the GMTO announced that its 11 partner organizations have all approved construction for the telescope, securing $500 million in funds and the project’s future.

The other partners in this project include international universities and scientific institutions, such as the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, The Australian National University and the São Paulo Research Foundation, as well as American institutions, such as Carnegie Institution for Science and The University of Arizona. 

“This puts UT at the forefront of the next generation of technology,” said Rebecca Johnson, publications editor for the McDonald Observatory. “We will have time on this telescope based on our buy into it. We’ll be able to be involved in making some of the first great discoveries with it.”

Scientists from all over the world have already begun building different instruments for GMT. At UT, astronomy professor Daniel Jaffe is leading the development of the GMT near-infrared spectrograph, an instrument that will study young stars and the star formation process. 

The telescope is being assembled at the observation site at Las Campanas Observatory in northern Chile. It is planned to begin working in 2021 and become fully operational in 2024. Las Campanas Observatory’s placement in Chile’s remote Atacama Desert will provide ideal viewing conditions for the telescope, as the desert is located at a high altitude of 8,000 feet with almost no vegetation or rain. The telescope will be held in an enclosure 20 stories tall.

“It takes a large community of scientists and engineers to build a telescope as large as the GMT,” McCarthy said in an email. “We are excited to be able to attract founders from all over the world.”