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Where do we come from? Are we alone in the universe?

As the world’s largest and most powerful eye on the sky, the Giant Magellan Telescope should help answer those and some of the other biggest questions of our time. The colossal instrument will stand 22 stories tall, its seven 28-foot mirrors collectively able to capture images that will take us back in time to the first cosmic moments after the Big Bang.

With UT as a founding partner in its development and construction, the telescope will have 10 times the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope. When it is completed in 2021, it will afford researchers and students the clearest images yet of the far reaches of the universe.

UT President Bill Powers, an enthusiastic GMT advocate, says being a charter investor in the initiative with nine other prestigious institutions fits with the university’s ambitions to stay at the leading edge of “big science.”

“Not only will we be helping to answer the most basic questions about our universe, but our involvement will underscore our status as a top world university,” Powers says.

Still-GMT-S22-hi-resize

Construction is set to begin in Chile this fall on the Giant Magellan Telescope, which represents the next class of earth-based telescopes. The instrument could revolutionize our understanding of the universe.

Despite its size, the GMT will be able to maneuver with pinpoint precision to see objects billions of light years away. Those massive mirrors, each a triumph of modern engineering and glassmaking, will be curved and polished to within a wavelength of light — approximately one-millionth of an inch. Adaptive optics will overcome atmospheric distortion and transform twinkling stars into clear, steady points of light.

With recent discoveries giving us definitive evidence for the first time that our galaxy is teeming with planetary systems, the GMT’s extraordinarily large aperture, along with its advanced instruments and detectors, will collect more light than any other telescope ever built.

As astronomers use the GMT to probe these planets — some relatively Earth-like, others quite exotic by comparison — and look carefully for evidence of life in their atmospheres, perhaps we can finally begin to understand our celestial neighbors.

LOCATION, TIMELINE, AND FUNDING

The Giant Magellan Telescope will be built at an altitude of about 8,500 feet in the Chilean foothills of the Andes Mountains,?where the air is extraordinarily dry and provides the sharpest possible images. The? site is geologically stable and is owned by the Carnegie Institution for Science, a GMT partner.

The location and its advanced optics will provide spectacular conditions more than 300 nights a year, an unprecedented capability for a ground-based telescope.

Three of the GMT’s seven primary mirrors have been cast thus far, and the site has been leveled in preparation for construction. Groundbreaking is scheduled for November 2015, and the telescope should be able to commence scientific activity in about five years, or once four of its seven mirrors are in place.

The project has a capped cost of $1.05 billion, and to date the partners have underwritten more than half of that sum through institutional funds and private donations. The university intends to have a 10 percent share — $100 million — and the UT System Board of Regents allocated $50 million last year.

It is hoped that gifts of all sizes will bridge the remainder. Naming opportunities for support between $1 million and $250 million are available. Two of the primary mirrors, for instance, will be named for Texas philanthropists George P. Mitchell and Cynthia Woods Mitchell in honor of the late couple’s GMT support.

WHAT TEXAS BRINGS TO THE PROJECT

While this telescope arrives as astronomy celebrates a new era of discovery and increased understanding of the universe, the university’s program is a standout among the GMT partners for its position at the forefront of new discovery.

No other partner has such a unique combination of potential strengths for making fundamental breakthroughs in our understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. UT faculty members produce some of the most-cited research in astronomy and astrophysics, and the university’s McDonald Observatory is home to leading-edge instruments including the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which will complement and support the GMT’s work.

GMT Partners

Department of Astronomy chair Daniel Jaffe has created a powerful new kind of spectrograph for the GMT that could allow him and his colleagues to make a technological leap forward in describing the scientific characteristics of faraway planets with extreme accuracy.

Professor Karl Gebhardt and other researchers, meanwhile, are focusing on dark energy and what it might tell us about how the universe began, how it has aged, and how it might end.

In terms of prestige, UT has already benefited from the GMT partnership in faculty recruitment and retention efforts. The past year’s graduate student applicant pool was the most selective ever. The word is out that big things are afoot.

“The GMT will push real science to the earliest galaxies in the universe and into the solar systems around nearby stars, where other Earths may be present,” says Jaffe.

“With today’s telescopes, we are just beginning to put our toes in the water. With the larger collecting area, higher resolution, and innovative instruments on the GMT, we can dive deep into the nature of the earliest structures in the universe and the amazing menagerie of planets.”

Learn more about the GMT and how to support it at texas.gmto.org.

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