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Giant telescope gets $20m funding boost as design takes shape

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Dec 29, 2014, 11:31 UTC

Sen—A supersized telescope has received a boon just as its preliminary design is discussed: a $20 million (£12.8 million) infusion of cash that is having its backers seek ways to put the money to good use right away.

While it's too early to say if the gift from entrepreneur Richard Caris will shorten the path to finishing the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), officials told Sen that they are examining the timeline to see if any efficiencies can be found using the new money.

"We now have enough resources to look at ways that a little spending in advance might move the process forward," said Patrick McCarthy, director of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization. This could mean using new tools, bringing in additional people a little earlier, or making modifications to the site in Chile where the behemoth telescope will be mounted.

Advertised as having 10 times more resolution than the Hubble Space Telescope, the GMT will have a six-mirror arrangement surrounding a large central mirror, creating an optical surface of 24.5 metres. Caris's company, Interface Inc., has created the custom mirror-cell support systems for past projects of the University of Arizona, which is now hard at work making the mirrors for the GMT.

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Artist's conception depicting the mirrors that will be used in the Giant Magellan Telescope. Image credit: Giant Magellan Telescope–GMTO Corporation

"He became fascinated with the technology, fascinated with astronomy and decided he wanted to support [our] effort," McCarthy said. "It's a wonderful synergy of science, technology and business all coming together to move in the same direction."

The GMT is in the preliminary design phase, a project-management milestone where the detailed construction plans are laid out. Meanwhile, the University of Arizona is moving along with finishing the mirrors for eventual shipment to Chile, where the telescope will be built in the Atacama Desert.

The first mirror was finished in 2012, with subsequent ones coming along afterwards. The fourth segment is supposed to be finished in March. The last segment is so far estimated to finished in July 2016, although there is no firm deadline yet attached.

"It's all good news. We've never had any significant problems with any of our castings to date," McCarthy said, noting that the initial challenge of getting the mirrors polished has now been smoothed over with experience.

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Artist's conception of the Giant Magellan Telescope on its site at Cerro Las Campanas in Chile. Image credit: Giant Magellan Telescope–GMTO Corporation

Simulataneously, GMT officials have been looking at the Cerros Las Campanas high-altitude site in Chile to make sure that they understand the nature of the rock and the weather. Three years of image quality obtained for GMT officials, coupled with 20 years of weather data, has them confident that the airflow will produce still-enough images for the astronomy they hope to accomplish.

The collecting area of the telescope is expected to be the largest of any ever constructed, providing a new entrant in the field of exoplanet-hunting. Being able to ferret out the tiny shadow a planet produces when it crosses its parent star is a challenge for most telescopes, but GMT officials say the mirror segments should be able to counteract the glare.

Additionally, GMT is expected to look at the evolution of galaxies, give scientists more information about dark matter and energy that are believed to make up most of the Universe, and give astronomers information about how the Universe formed and may die.

Commissioning of the GMT is set to start in 2021, if the schedule holds.

A video about the Giant Magellan Telescope and what it will achieve. Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope–GMTO Corporation