UT System regents OK $50 million for telescope project

Posted Monday, Mar. 31, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Texas has upped its ante in the race to build the world’s largest telescope, which astronomers hope will revolutionize human understanding of the universe.

The University of Texas System board of regents unanimously voted this month to spend $50 million to participate in the Giant Magellan Telescope project, which will see deeper into the cosmos than anything that’s ever been built.

It’s a step the university had to take if it wanted to remain a significant partner in the telescope project, which is competing with two other groups racing to build the first of the next generation of very large telescopes — which could be operational by the end of the decade.

“The vote signals to present faculty, future faculty and students that UT remains very, very serious about optical astronomy,” said David Lambert, a University of Texas at Austin astronomer.

UT’s McDonald Observatory in West Texas in the 1930s had the second-largest telescope in the world, the 82-inch Otto Struve telescope, and its 433-inch Hobby-Eberly Telescope is today the fourth-largest in existence. The Magellan telescope would be 80 feet, or more than twice the size of the Hobby-Eberly telescope.

UT hopes eventually to contribute $100 million to the project, which would cost about $1 billion and be built in a Chilean desert, and Texas A&M $50 million. The more money an institution pays, the more observing time its astronomers receive.

With the $50 million commitment from the UT regents, it will be up to the astronomy department to raise the remainder of its $100 million pledge, primarily through philanthropy. Texas A&M University, thanks to recently deceased alumnus George Mitchell and his fascination with the stars, has raised $25 million.

In addition to the international consortium planning to build the Magellan telescope, which includes both UT and Texas A&M, competitors in California and Europe have announced plans to build great astronomical instruments, each of which would be at least 10 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. None have started site construction.

Construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope could begin as early as summer, depending on funds raised.

The new generation of telescopes will allow astronomers to peer back to near the beginning of the universe, when the first stars and galaxies were forming, as well as study the nature of dark matter and dark energy and possibly identify signals of life on worlds around other stars.

“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,” said Bill Powers, UT Austin’s president. “This is the leading edge of science, and it is where Texas must be.”

The most prestige, however, will go only to the group that begins taking observations first. And to keep up with its competitors, that means the Magellan group must begin on-site construction soon.

Like the Texas institutions, other Magellan partners including Harvard, the University of Arizona, the Smithsonian Institution and universities in Australia and Korea are at various states of raising the funds they’ve promised to the ambitious project.

“We’re getting interestingly close to what we need for stage one,” Lambert said. Michael Long, vice president of the Great Magellan Telescope Organization, said more than 75 percent of the funds for the $650 million first stage of the telescope — four mirrors, an enclosure and a structure to house the instrument — have been raised. When complete, the telescope will have seven mirrors, but it would still be useful in its scaled-down configuration.

Although they are competitors in many ways, the two Texas universities are working closely to ensure the success of the Giant Magellan Telescope.

“The state of Texas has always looked to the sky,” said Nick Suntzeff, an astronomer at Texas A&M University. “It is in our flag, in our songs. We are the center of manned space flight. Astronomers at UT have always enjoyed access to some of the largest telescopes in the world, and now they will continue this tradition into the future. It is not in the nature of Texas to think small.”

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