December 13, 2004

First Mirror Ordered for Giant Magellan Telescope

Cambridge, MA -- The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) has taken a key step toward the goal of building and operating a large next-generation telescope through its participation in the joint Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). The GMT will have a diameter of about 83 feet (25.4 meters), about as wide as the 2004 Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, New York, is tall.

Today, two of the GMT participants--the Carnegie Observatories of the Carnegie Institution, and the University of Arizona, Steward Observatory Mirror Lab--announced that they have signed an agreement to produce the first mirror for the GMT. This important step will keep the GMT on track for completion in 2016.

"The Giant Magellan Telescope represents the dawn of a new age of astronomical exploration," stated Dr. Charles Alcock, CfA director. "As telescopes get larger, we are able to see fainter, farther, and with more clarity than ever before. We can only guess at the scientific discoveries that will be made using this enormous telescope, and the new insights into the universe that we will gain."

The eight-member GMT consortium includes the Carnegie Observatories, Harvard University, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (a member of CfA), University of Arizona, University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M University.

"This is an inspiring moment for me as we prepare to cast the first of GMT's seven huge mirrors," said Dr. Dan Fabricant, CfA project scientist for GMT. "The GMT will gather five times more light than the world's largest existing telescope, and it will produce images many times sharper than Hubble's. With GMT's unprecedented power, we will explore the origin of planets like our Earth and look back through the furthest reaches of cosmic time to observe how galaxies like our own Milky Way were formed."

The GMT's innovative design and huge size will enable it to probe the secrets of planets that have formed around other stars in the Milky Way, explore the formation of black holes, peer back in time toward the Big Bang with unprecedented clarity, and delve into the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

"We got a big surprise a few years ago when we learned from observations that the expansion of the Universe is speeding up. We attribute this to a mysterious `dark energy,' but we really don't know much about it. The Giant Magellan Telescope will enable us to see exploding stars whose light comes from 10 billion light years away, to use those stars to trace cosmic expansion, and to begin to figure out what the dark energy really is," said Prof. Robert Kirshner of CfA.

"It is absolutely wonderful to see the Giant Magellan Telescope project start with this milestone. It will open up incredible new vistas in cosmology, star formation and the study of stars and planets, to name just a few," stated Prof. John Huchra of CfA. "I started my career observing on a 100-inch telescope. It would be great to work on a 1000-inch!"

The mirrors for the GMT will be made using the existing infrastructure at Steward that made the 6.5-meter Magellan mirrors and the larger 8.4-meter mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope on Mt. Graham, Arizona.

"The real distinction of the GMT is that it is building on a heritage of successful technology developed for the twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory. Their performance has far exceeded our expectations," stated Dr. Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Observatories.

The new telescope will be composed of seven, 8.4-meter primary mirrors, six of which will be off-axis, arranged in a floral pattern to produce a telescope with an effective aperture of 25.4 meters (83 feet). One spare off-axis mirror also will be made.

The off-axis mirrors will require new techniques in casting and polishing to construct. The first off-axis mirror will be cast this coming summer (2005) to address the new challenges. Site testing at the GMT's planned location at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile, also is underway along with many other aspects of the project.

Detailed information about the design of the GMT and the science that it will perform is located at http://www.gmto.org/.

This press release was issued jointly with the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.