In 2022, the dreams of hundreds of astronomers across the world will become a reality with the completion of a telescope large enough to see to the edge of the universe.
The Giant Magellan Telescope is a telescope being constructed in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Chile, one of the best locations for a telescope in the world. Texas A&M is among a large number of universities and science institutions supporting the project, including Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution.
Nick Suntzeff, A&M astronomy professor, said the sheer size of the collecting area will enable the GMT to see further than any other current telescope.
“When we go on the sky, we will be able to see things that no one else can,” Suntzeff said. “We will be able to look at nearby stars for planets with signatures of life in their atmospheres; we will be able to look at galaxies at the edge of the universe. There will be some amazing science we will be able to do.”
Darren DePoy, A&M astronomy professor, said construction first began on the project in Nov. 2015 and so far, support buildings and infrastructure are almost completed. DePoy said one of the most difficult parts of the project will be constructing the foundation — or pier — the telescope will sit upon.
“The key element of the telescope is a giant chunk of concrete. You dig a hole straight down to bedrock then you fill that hole up with concrete, and that’s what the telescope sits on,” DePoy said. “It needs to be incredibly stable. It’s an enormous amount of concrete. Something dramatic will happen to get all this concrete in this big hole that they will dig on top of the mountain to make the pier for the telescope.”
DePoy said once completed, the telescope will have an expected lifetime of between 50 and 100 years.
“We can apply the telescope to whatever is the most interesting science 50 years from now,” DePoy said. “Who knows what that might be? By changing its functions the instruments that go on the back of our telescope we can make sure the telescope is vibrant, and useful, and always producing good results.”
Suntzeff said the project has the majority of the money it needs for completion and is expected to be online by 2022 or 2023.
“When I first came here we had a little bit of money and it was just a dream,” Suntzeff said. “We still don’t have all of the money but it’s a reality now, and that’s very exciting. We will be the largest telescope when it is built and we will be on the sky before any of the other large telescopes for a while.”
Suntzeff said even though astronomers have expectations for what they will see with the telescope, he expects the unexpected.
“Whenever you open up a new telescope and start looking at the sky the cool stuff that you discover is not the stuff you expected, it’s completely unexpected,” Suntzeff said. “That’s what I think is really exciting, what it is that we don’t know what we’re going to discover.”
Jerry Strawser, chief financial officer at Texas A&M, said the university considers the project an investment in science.
“Like a lot of things, this is a long-term project and it is going to take a number of years to get finished,” Strawser said. “But there are a number of leading astronomers who are on the board of directors who are excited about the project and what it will do for their research and the scientific community.”
DePoy said incredible scientific research can be done using the Giant Magellan Telescope.
“Maybe 100 years from now we will be building telescopes on the moon and then we really won’t need telescopes here on the surface of the earth, that’s not really very pertinent to me,” DePoy said. “For now, it’s a really super worthwhile thing to do. We can find planets with life on them, if we can, if they’re there. We can look at some of the earliest galaxies; we can investigate how the universe is structured.”