Desert astronomy

New ‘super’ observatory under construction in Chile

The Giant Magellan Telescope will use revolutionary technology to shed light on life in the universe and the mysteries of dark matter.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 Category: Education - Technology
Artist’s rendition of the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Image courtesy of GMTO) Artist’s rendition of the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Image courtesy of GMTO)

What is the nature of dark matter and dark energy? What principals of physics govern black holes? How did stars and galaxies evolve during the earliest phases of the universe? Are we alone in the universe?


The astronomical community will go one step closer to answering these and other fundamental mysteries of the universe this Friday, March 23, when construction begins on the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).


The GMT - which will use the latest in cutting-edge technology - is to be constructed on the existing site of the Cerro Las Campanas observatory, in the high Andean deserts of northern Chile’s Coquimbo region.


“The telescope will be one of the next class of super giant Earth-based telescopes that promises to revolutionize our view and understanding of the universe,” said the GMTO, an international consortium of leading universities and science institutions that have spearheaded the program - which also receives support from the Chilean government and the Universidad de Chile.


The new technology consists of seven enormous mirrors, each precisely curved and polished to within a few wavelengths of light (approximately one-millionth of an inch). The mirrors will be positioned to reflect light from the edge of the universe down a series of incrementally smaller mirrors until focusing on advanced imaging technology - a design that will produce images 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.


Or in everyday English: expect some heavenly pictures of the universe in the not-so-distant future.


The unique mirror design of the GMT will collect more light than any telescope ever built. Designers likewise say it will also overcome one of the great hurdles in studying planets that could potentially harbor life: the glare of host stars at the center of each planet’s orbit often blocks out most of the planet’s reflected light and makes it difficult to observe it in greater detail.


So it’s not without cause that the GMTO talks about making “one of the greatest [discoveries] in the history of human exploration. . . evidence of life on other planets.”


The GMT will be the latest addition to Chile’s impressive astronomical infrastructure, which includes the world’s largest telescope, the European Southern Obesrvatory’s Extremely Large Telescope. The GMT is expected to be operational in about 10 years.


For more detailed information about the telescope and the project, see the GMTO website.

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