Atop the arid plateau of the Atacama Desert in Chile, the largest telescope in the world broke ground on Wednesday, beginning a project that will last six years and result in unprecedented views of the outer reaches of our solar system. The Giant Magellan Telescope is slated to be operational by 2021, when it will be capable of peering into the deepest of black holes, capturing images that are 10 times clearer than those sent back to Earth by the Hubble space telescope. Magellan represents not just a giant mirror surface, but also a giant leap forward in telescope technology. In fact, scientists believe Magellan just might reveal the origins of the universe.
The Magellan or GMT as it is known by its planners, the Greater Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO), will be 24.5 meters (80.4 feet). That’s more than twice the size of the current “world’s largest telescope” title holder belonging to the Gran Telescopio Canarias in La Palma, Spain, with a mirror diameter of 10.4 meters (34.2 feet). Other really big telescopes are slated for construction in the following years, namely the 30 Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will be located 415 miles north of Magellan and measure 39.5 meters (129.6 feet). That means so Magellan won’t get to hold the top slot for very long. (And, yes, it will actually be called “Extremely Large” because astrophysicists have a much bigger sense of humor than they get credit for.)
Magellan – named of course for the Portugese explorer Ferdinand Magellan – is being built at perhaps the perfect spot on Earth. The site is at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which is known for its clear, dark skies and outstanding astronomical image clarity. Essentially, Las Campanas is one of the world’s premier locations for astronomy. The telescope itself has a unique design, which combines seven of the largest mirrors that can be manufactured, each 8.4 meters (27 feet) across, to create a single telescope effectively 25 meters or 85 feet in diameter. The giant mirrors are being developed at the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, which you probably didn’t even know was a thing. The specs of the telescope require each mirror to be polished to an accuracy of 25 nanometers or one millionth of an inch.
“With today’s groundbreaking, we take a crucial step forward in our mission to build the first in a new generation of extremely large telescopes. The GMT will usher in a new era of discovery and help us to answer some of our most profound questions about the universe,” says GMTO Board Member and Director of the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Dr. Charles Alcock.
Images via Giant Magellan Telescope Organization