Texas A&M Signs Giant Magellan Telescope Agreement
COLLEGE STATION —
Texas A&M University, along with eight other astronomical research organizations from three continents, has signed the Founders’ Agreement to construct and operate the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) at Las Campanas Observatory in the Andes Mountains of Chile.
“We are poised to enter the age of the greatest advances in astronomy — the discovery of Earth-like planets capable of life, as well as the understanding of the origin and evolution of our Universe,” said Nicholas B. Suntzeff, director of Texas A&M’s astronomy program and holder of the Mitchell-Heep-Munnerlyn Endowed Chair in Observational Astronomy in the Texas A&M Department of Physics. “When we map the Universe to its beginning or find that Earth-like planet, I want Texas A&M astronomers and physicists to be there making these discoveries.”
In addition to Texas A&M, participating United States institutions include the Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the University of Arizona and The University of Texas at Austin. The two Australian members are the Australian National University and Astronomy Australia Limited. The newest addition to the Founders’ group is the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute, which recently received approval from the South Korean government to represent the Korean astronomical community in what is now officially known as the GMT Corporation.
“The Founders’ Agreement establishes the framework for the construction and operation of the telescope,” said Wendy Freeman, chair of the GMT Corporation Board and director of the Carnegie Observatories. “The Founders’ group represents an extraordinary team of institutions, each one of which has made important contributions to the development of the most advanced telescopes and instrumentation during the last 100 years. The GMT continues this remarkable legacy.”
With its seven co-mounted 8.4-meter primary segments and adaptive secondary system, the GMT will provide unique capabilities in optical and infrared astronomy, opening new windows into the Universe and helping to answer questions that cannot be answered with existing facilities. The GMT will teach us about the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the origin of the first stars and first galaxies, the mysteries of star and planet formation, galaxy evolution and black hole growth. The GMT also will play a key role in the detection and imaging of planets around nearby stars.
“We have joined the GMT as a founder, because this giant telescope offers Texas A&M — and Texas — the best telescope design and partnership available,” Suntzeff said. “As one of the great engineering universities in the world, Texas A&M astronomers can team with engineering to help build and instrument this giant telescope.
“I have been able to hire some of the best young astronomers in the world to come to Texas A&M because of the excitement of being at a university committed to this partnership in building the GMT. It is hard to describe the anticipation among astronomers who will finally have a telescope that can see to the very edge of our Universe.”
Scheduled for completion around 2019, the GMT will have the resolving power of a single 24.5-meter (80-foot) primary mirror. Each of the primary mirror segments weighs 20 tons, and the telescope enclosure has a height of about 200 feet. Construction is set to begin in 2012, at an overall project cost of approximately $700 million — $130 million of which already has been raised to date.
Suntzeff notes that, as a research tool, the GMT will answer many of the questions at the forefront of astrophysics today — at a cost that, while significant, amounts to less than a single launch of the Space Shuttle.
“The GMT will give us a better understanding of how the Universe originated and how it is evolving to this day,” Suntzeff explained. “Imagine the excitement if it proves there is life on other planets. There is no doubt it will make new discoveries of planets and give us vital information about black holes, dark matter, dark energy and other things that are a complete mystery to us right now.”
The signing of the Founders’ Agreement accompanies two other project milestones. The first of GMT’s six “off-axis” honeycomb mirrors, cast in 2005, has just been generated to its almost-final surface at the University of Arizona Mirror Lab, with polishing and testing scheduled to be completed in early 2010.
“Completion of this off-axis mirror retires one of the largest technical challenges of the project,” said Mirror Lab Director Roger Angel.
The project’s second milestone concerns final site selection — Las Campanas Observatory, which overlooks the Atacama Desert in the Chilean Andes and is owned and operated by the Carnegie Institution.
“In both the mirror technology and the site, the GMT project is building on the superb heritage demonstrated by the two very successful 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes that have been in operation at Las Campanas since 2000,” said GMT Program Manager Matt Johns.
“The science opportunities for this telescope are extraordinary,” said GMT Acting Director Patrick McCarthy. “It will shed light not only upon the nature of the Universe but also on the fundamental laws of physics that govern its evolution. As such, it seems especially fitting that this international Founders’ Agreement should have been signed in the International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of the first astronomical use of a telescope by Galileo.”
Texas A&M’s membership in the GMT was made possible by an initial $1.75 million gift through the Texas A&M Foundation from George and Cynthia Mitchell of The Woodlands, Texas, intended to bolster the university’s scientific development and leadership in physics, astronomy and related focus areas. The Mitchells’ contributions to physics, which include funding for two buildings, 10 academic chairs and two professorships under the auspices of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, as well as a 10-year collaboration between Texas A&M and the University of Cambridge, total more than $52 million since 2002.
According to Edward S. Fry, professor and head of the Texas A&M Department of Physics, the Mitchells have since given an additional $1.5 million for the GMT and have committed to give another $1.5 million per year for five years, provided matching gifts are found.
“This telescope will enable us to see to the edges of the Universe, to pick out planets orbiting stars other than our own,” Fry said. “We owe George Mitchell a tremendous debt of gratitude for what he has done for Texas A&M and for astronomy.”
Additional gifts through the Foundation from Judith G. and Charles R. Munnerlyn ’62 of San Jose, Calif., have helped to fund three endowed faculty positions in the Texas A&M Department of Physics, including a chair in observational astronomy, and an endowed fund to support departmental programs and activities. In September Texas A&M honored the Munnerlyns with the official naming of the Charles R. ’62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and Space Engineering Building, which will house and support research and outreach endeavors for both the Department of Physics and Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M.
“Texas A&M has been one of the principal supporters of the development of the GMT through the generous support of former students George Mitchell and Charles Munnerlyn,” Suntzeff said. “With the new Mitchell Building housing the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the new Munnerlyn Building housing our astronomical instrumentation lab, Texas A&M is already internationally seen as a new, exciting place to study astronomy.”
Detailed information about the GMT’s design as well as the science it will perform can be found at www.gmto.org or by contacting GMT Board Chair Wendy Freedman at (626) 304-0204 or email@example.com.
For more on Texas A&M astronomy, visit http://www.physics.tamu.edu/research/list-astronomy.html.
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, (979) 458-1786 or email@example.com
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