To boldly go
Largest-ever telescope to provide A&M astronomers access to universe
Published: Monday, September 9, 2013
Updated: Monday, September 9, 2013 23:09
Science fiction might soon lose the second word in its title.
At the top of the Andes Mountains in Chile, Texas A&M University and a consortium of institutions are building a time machine — not the type that H.G. Wells envisioned for travel into the future, but one that will give astronomers unprecedented ability to peer into the past.
At the time of the publication for Wells’ “The Time Machine,” glimpsing anything but the present was science fiction. Today, it’s called modern astrophysics.
Bigger, Better, Faster
The Giant Magellan Telescope is a record breaker. When construction is finished around the year 2020, it will be the largest telescope ever created by mankind, generating images 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope and giving scientists unmatched access to the universe as it was billions of years ago.
Nicholas Suntzeff, professor of observational astronomy at Texas A&M and member of the GMT’s board of directors, said the telescope will help astronomers see back to a cosmic time when the earliest galaxies and stars were just beginning to form.
“The telescope is so powerful that we will be able to see the other side of the universe,” Suntzeff said. “As we look deeper and deeper into the universe, we’re looking backwards in time because it takes time for the light to get to us. We will literally see where the galaxies stop, and that’s it, that’s the edge of the universe.”
To date, the largest telescopes built have 10-meter mirrors. In comparison, once the GMT’s seven mirrors are in place, the telescope will have a 25-meter diameter. Suntzeff said the biggest challenge in the telescope’s design was finding a way to manufacture mirrors of that size while maintaining the smoothness necessary to accurately collect light from stellar objects.
“These mirrors are so accurate that if you took them and spread them across the U.S., the largest bump would be about half an inch,” Suntzeff said.
Besides Texas A&M, there are nine other major GMT partners working on the telescope, including UT. However, thanks to a multi-million dollar donation to the physics and astronomy department from George Mitchell, Class of 1940, Texas A&M invested the seed money that was critical toward making the telescope a reality.
“George Mitchell’s [donation] was the key to kick-starting this project, and his support through this University was absolutely necessary to the project’s success,” Suntzeff said.
The telescope won’t be completed until 2020, but this is not stopping Aggie astronomers from anticipating the day when the GMT will be the newest addition to A&M’s research playground.
Kim-Vy Tran, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M, said A&M’s role as a main contributor will guarantee Aggie research time on the telescope, a thing hard to come by in the astronomy world.
“Because we are part of the consortium, we will be getting about 10 percent of the time on the telescope,” Tran said. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”
The telescope marks a milestone in Texas A&M’s growing physics and astronomy department. Darren DePoy, professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M and member of the GMT’s board of directors, said the GMT will give new opportunities to both Aggie professors and students.
“One of the strengths of our program is that we will couple the telescope to our graduate program and [graduate students] are encouraged to use it for their dissertations,” DePoy said. “Our goal is to have an excellent graduate astrophysics program and this will allow that to happen.”
In a time when science budgets are facing increasing scrutiny in the hopes of cutting costs, Suntzeff said the fact that A&M is moving forward in this project sends a powerful message to the astronomy community.
“The best astronomers go to where the best telescopes are,” Suntzeff said. “I guarantee that as A&M becomes a major partner in the GMT, we can hire the best astronomers in the world.”
Besides its meaning for Texas A&M’s emerging physics and astronomy department, the telescope will bring scientists around the world closer to answering fundamental questions astronomers and philosophers have asked throughout history.
“[With the GMT] we can finally answer questions like, ‘Is there life around other stars?’” Suntzeff said. “These large telescopes are going to answer that, and if we are in the sky first, chances are that we can make that discovery.”