The University of Texas at Austin has joined with eight other astronomical research organizations from three continents in signing the Founders' Agreement to construct and operate the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) at Las Campanas Observatory in the Andes Mountains of Chile.
"In order to maintain our leadership role in astronomy in the future, Texas must be a part of the development and employment of the most advanced instruments," said Dr. Mary Ann Rankin, dean of the university's College Natural Sciences. "This means being involved in the creation of a very large telescope that will allow astronomers to push data acquisition and observation to much more advanced levels than ever before. We believe that the GMT project offers the best telescope design and the best partnership available, and we are proud to be part of the effort."
Dr. David L. Lambert, director of the university's McDonald Observatory, said, "Joining GMT keeps our astronomy program very competitive. It will be a tool for us to probe the coming frontiers of optical and infrared astronomy."
In addition to the university, other U.S. participants include the Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas Aand M University, and the University of Arizona. The two Australian members of the Founders group are the Australian National University and Astronomy Australia Limited. The newest partner to join GMT is the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, whose representative will sign the Founders Agreement on Feb. 6.
"The Founders Agreement establishes the framework for the construction and operation of the telescope," said Wendy Freedman, GMT Corporation Board chair and director of the Carnegie Observatories. "The Founders group represents an extraordinary team of institutions, each one of which has made important contributions to the development of the most advanced telescopes and instrumentation during the last 100 years. The GMT continues this remarkable legacy."
Lambert said the university hopes to take a leading role in the telescope's instrumentation, proposing to build two major instruments for GMT in Austin. These would be spectrographs, the instruments that are mounted on telescopes and take light from a star or galaxy and break it up into its component wavelengths, like a prism breaking light into a rainbow. Spectrographs enable astronomers to learn the distance, temperature, motion, chemical content, and more of objects millions of light-years away places mankind will never be able to visit and study up close.
GMT will provide unique capabilities that will open new windows onto the universe and help answer questions that cannot be answered with existing facilities. The telescope will have seven primary mirrors, each 8.3 meters in diameter, giving it the power of a telescope with a single mirror of 25 meters. Its secondary mirror system will be equipped with "adaptive optics," allowing the telescope to respond in real time to changing atmospheric conditions. This will keep its images of the heavens clear.
Using GMT, astronomers will learn about the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the origin of the first stars and first galaxies, the mysteries of star and planet formation, galaxy evolution and black hole growth. GMT will also play a key role in the detection and imaging of planets around nearby stars.
The GMT team hopes to have the telescope's detailed design completed within two years. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012 and be completed around 2019.
Fundraising for the approximately $700 million telescope continues. Of that, $130 million has been raised to date.
The signing of the Founders Agreement accompanies two other project milestones. The first of the telescope's primary mirrors, cast in 2005, has just been figured to its almost-final surface at the University of Arizona Mirror Lab, and polishing and testing will be completed in early 2010.
"Completion of this off-axis mirror will retire one of the largest technical challenges of the project," said Mirror Lab Director Roger Angel.
The GMT Project has also recently passed another milestone in choosing the site of the GMT to be Las Campanas Observatory, overlooking the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes. The site is owned and operated by the Carnegie Institution.
"In both the mirror technology and the site, the GMT project is building on the superb heritage demonstrated by the two very successful 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes that have been in operation at Las Campanas since 2000," said GMT Program Manager Matt Johns.
"The science opportunities for this telescope are extraordinary," said GMT Acting Director Patrick McCarthy. "It will shed light not only upon the nature of the universe but also on the fundamental laws of physics that govern its evolution. As such, it seems especially fitting that this international Founders agreement should have been signed in time for [this year's] International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical use of a telescope by Galileo."