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Investment from UT Austin, Other Partners Accelerates Construction of Giant Magellan Telescope

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GMT Interior Front
Artists' concept of the Giant Magellan Telescope. Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope - GMTO Corporation

AUSTIN, Texas — The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) is a next-generation optical/infrared telescope being developed in northern Chile that will yield important discoveries on topics such as galaxies in the early universe and Earth-sized planets orbiting nearby stars.

The University of Texas at Austin is investing an additional $45 million in the GMT, the world’s most powerful telescope. This additional funding brings the university’s total commitment to $110.3 million.

The GMT Organization is an international consortium, and new investments from its partners now total $205 million to accelerate construction. In addition to UT Austin’s latest contribution, it includes commitments from the Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago.

“I am delighted that six like-minded partners in the Giant Magellan Telescope have worked together to make an impressive new financial commitment toward building the telescope and its instrumentation, propelling the telescope closer to first light,” said Taft Armandroff, director of the university’s McDonald Observatory and vice chair of the GMT Organization board. “GMT will provide transformational observing capabilities to our faculty, students and researchers.”

The funds will be used to manufacture the 12-story telescope structure at Ingersoll Machine Tools in Illinois, continue progress on the telescope’s seven primary mirrors at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab in Arizona, and build one of the most advanced scientific instruments, led by UT Austin, called the GMT Near Infrared Spectrograph (GMTNIRS).

“We are honored to receive this investment in our future,” said GMT President Robert Shelton. “The funding is truly a collaborative effort from our founders. It will result in the fabrication of the world’s largest mirrors, the giant telescope mount that holds and aligns them, and a science instrument that will allow us to study the chemical evolution of stars and planets like never before.”

The funding comes after the National Academy of Sciences Astro2020 Decadal Survey evaluated the Giant Magellan Telescope as a core partner of the United States Extremely Large Telescope Program. Astro2020 ranked the program a top priority and “absolutely essential if the United States is to maintain a position as a leader in ground-based astronomy.”

GMT is under construction at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile and will allow astronomers to see farther into space with more detail than any other optical telescope before. It will have 10 times the light collecting area and four times the spatial resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and will be up to 200 times as powerful as existing research telescopes.

This unprecedented angular resolution, combined with revolutionary spectrographs and high-contrast cameras, will work in direct synergy with JWST to empower new scientific discoveries. GMT will be the next step in studying the physics and chemistry of the faintest light sources in space that JWST will identify. This includes searching the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets for life, studying the first galaxies that formed in the universe, and finding clues that will unravel the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy, black holes and the formation of the universe.

“We are working with some of the brightest engineers and scientists at the leading research institutions around the globe,” said Walter Massey, GMT board chair and former director of the National Science Foundation and chairman of Bank of America. “The recent contributions from our investing partners in the Giant Magellan Telescope are collectively pushing the boundaries of astronomy, making the future a reality and allowing us to answer some key science goals, including ‘Are we alone in the universe?’”

The telescope has already achieved significant construction progress during the past few years. Six of seven primary mirror segments have been cast in Tucson, Arizona. The third primary mirror segment has completed its two-year polishing phase and is undergoing final testing. Construction of a 40,000-square-foot facility in Rockford, Illinois, to manufacture the telescope structure is complete. The production of the telescope’s first adaptive secondary mirror is well underway in France and Italy, and the site in Chile is being primed for the next stage of construction and for pouring of the foundation.

This latest $205 million investment round positions the Giant Magellan Telescope to be one of the first in a new generation of extremely large telescopes to be constructed. First light is anticipated by the end of the decade.

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