UT Chips in for World’s Largest Telescope

UT Chips in for World's Largest Telescope
The University of Texas is fairly familiar with the final frontier. UT-Austin has produced 12 astronauts, has its own Center for Space Research, and is represented at NASA’s Joint Propulsion Lab by a crew of Texas Exes known as the “Texas Mafia.” The astronomy department ranks in the top 10 nationally. The university’s McDonald Observatory in far West Texas is home to the fifth-largest telescope in the world, not to mention the source of the nationally syndicated public radio program StarDate. And now we’re going even further.

On Friday, the UT System Board of Regents approved a $50 million investment in the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). Upon completion in 2020, the telescope will become the largest in the world. Construction is poised to begin in the mountains of Chile, where nearly non-existent light pollution will allow basketball court-sized mirrored surfaces to collect images that are expected to be 10 times better than those being gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Not only will we be helping to answer the most basic questions about our universe,” President Bill Powers said in a statement, “but our involvement will underscore our status as a top world university. This is the leading edge of science, and it is where Texas must be.”

By funding the project, UT will be guaranteed yearly access to the telescope. The university hopes to contribute another $50 million through fundraising, the $100 million total making up about 10 percent of the estimated $1.05 billion price tag. They join an international consortium of universities that are taking part in the project, including longtime rival Texas A&M University.

So why fund such an expensive device? Experts say it may hold the key to future breakthroughs—and maybe even the future of the human race itself. McDonald Observatory director David Lambert says the GMT could help find previously hidden planets, some of which may have the potential for life or even habitation.

“If we succeed,” he explains, “I think the discovery of a series of habitable planets would be a landmark in human history.”

Above: Artist’s conception of the GMT. Image courtesy McDonald Observatory.


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