Work begins on humongous telescope

From atop a Chilean mountain, the Giant Magellan Telescope help scientists expand humankind's understanding of space.

Giant Magellan Telescope/Carnegie Observatories
An artist's renderings of the Giant Magellan Telescope in its enclosure. The project will be complete in 2025 and is expected to provide mankind with a broader understanding of the universe.

Years of construction began this week on a Chilean mountaintop, future home to a colossal telescope able to reach farther into space than ever before.

Creators of the Giant Magellan Telescope gathered Tuesday on Cerro Las Campanas to announce the onset of the 10-year project, which, when completed, will create the world’s largest telescope, able to generate images 10 times sharper than those of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, of Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement that the new capacities will further humankind’s understanding of the universe.

“With its unprecedented size and resolving power the Giant Magellan Telescope will allow current and future generations of astronomers to continue the journey of cosmic discovery,” said Dr. Taft Armandroff, director of the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We want to understand what are the contents of the universe, how it evolves and what’s our place in the universe,” Patrick McCarthy, interim GMT president, said in an interview with Popular Mechanics.

The Magellan group said Chile’s Atacama Desert was chosen for the telescope’s location and because of its “dark skies and outstanding astronomical clarity,” calling it “one of the world’s premiere locations” for exploring space.

The device will be made up of seven mirrors that, combined, will create the equivalent of one telescope 85 feet in diameter and 22 stories high. It will first become operational in 2021 and will be fully functioning by 2025.

The project will become the largest observatory on the planet, enabling researchers to view space in infrared, using magnetized coils for sharper imaging – a first for telescopes obstructed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

McCarthy told Popular Mechanics that the new capabilities would give his team a better look at the universe’s earliest galaxies and help us understand the composition of far-flung exoplanets.

The telescope represents an enormous international effort, costing at least $500 million. The United States, Brazil, and Korea lead the endeavor, the Magellan group said. It also comes at a time when two other mega-telescopes are being created. Framed as new generation, the observatories will likely be constructed concurrently.

One proposed project called The Thirty Meter Telescope is going through a prolonged land-use battle in Hawaii, while another one, the largest of the three, is currently under construction on a different mountaintop in the Atacama. McCarthy said he believed all three could work together to advance the world’s understanding of the universe, a journey that will begin with the Magellan.

“The GMT will usher in a new era of discovery and help us answer some of our most profound questions about the universe,” said Dr. Charles Alcock, a Harvard University scientist on the Magellan organization’s board. 

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