It was a bold idea – a telescope in space.

Sarah Royce
ABOVE: Illustration of the telescope lens. (Graphic illustrations by Todd Mason)
Sarah Royce
(Graphic by Gervis Menzies)
Sarah Royce
TOP: Illustration showing the outside view of the yet to be constructed Giant Magellan Telescope below a night sky. (Graphic illustrations by Todd Mason)

And it happened.

With the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, astronomy crossed into a new frontier as astronomical phenomena, once only relegated to theory, suddenly became viewable to one of the world’s most powerful space lenses.

The only catch – the idea didn’t take flight overnight.

Lyman Spitzer, the astrophysicist who first proposed the idea, waited 44 years before his orbital observatory delved into the mysteries of space and time.

A similar story faces Douglas Richstone, chair of the astronomy department.

The University’s astronomy department, along with seven other institutions, plans to construct the world’s largest ground telescope yet. Known as the Giant Magellan Telescope or the GMT, the observatory will be a 100 times more powerful than Hubble and aims to peer into the deepest reaches of the universe unlike any other telescope. The estimated completion date: 2016. And that’s if they can get the half a billion dollars they need on time.

“I may well be retired when the telescope is made,” Richstone said, who will turn 67 when construction on the GMT finishes.

Lord of the Lenses

Like the Hubble Space Telescope, the GMT began with another bold idea, but one that stretches back even further to the founding of the astronomy department in 1856.

Administrators envisioned the University’s first and only research division at the time to become the flagship of the school’s scientific endeavors. Ever since, the department has pursued that task in large part through telescopes – the scientific backbone to all astronomy research.

From its beginnings with the now-defunct Detroit Observatory, to the recently completed Magellan Project – two towering observatories perched below the clear skies of the Andes Mountain in Chile – the hunt for the best astronomical hardware has led the department across the world and to build bigger and better telescope lenses. Now the trail heads toward the department’s most ambitious venture despite the major costs and technological entanglements.

If their undertaking succeeds, the GMT will be the crown jewel among the department’s collection of telescope lenses. Seven massive mirrors arranged in a honeycomb fashion, the overall aperture of the telescope measures at about 70 feet in diameter, making it four times more powerful than the current top telescopes. Just one of the 27 foot mirrors of the GMT eclipses the department’s next largest telescopes, which work with a primary mirror only 21 feet in diameter.

For astronomers, it will be like putting on a fresh pair of glasses. A massive one to say the least.

“You will get a 100 times more light and a sharper and crisper image than other telescopes,” Richstone said. “This is a big jump.”

With the colossal light-gathering power of the telescope, planets from other solar systems, once shrouded in the glare from the stars they orbited, will finally come into focus and be visible. The telescope may even be able to detect faint terrestrial planets harboring life. It’s just the tip of the iceberg for the GMT, which may also shed light on the formation of black holes and the existence of dark matter, among many other celestial subjects.

“The telescope will have enough resolution to start trying to find these things out,” said Astronomy Prof. Lee Hartmann. “Theory just isn’t enough.”

But when Richstone and Hartmann talk about the impact the GMT will have on the astronomy department, they aren’t strictly speaking about the scientific allure. Nor are they just hinting at the bitterness surrounding their looming retirements. They’re really getting down to business.

 

Astropolitics

When Richstone and University faculty dedicated one of the Magellan Project telescopes on a 2000 December trip to Chile, then University President Lee Bollinger asked Richstone at the ceremony, “What research will you use these telescopes for?”

Richstone replied not with the goal of making any scientific breakthrough, but said, “I don’t know. The main reason I wanted to be part of this project is to have intelligent young scientists in the department to tell me about their research as I get close to retirement.”

The obvious point made to Bollinger – “Telescopes have a strategic place that goes beyond astronomy,” Richstone said. “They are a tool to recruit young people. … And you have to have the tools to bring them.”

Because telescopes lie at the core of astronomy research, it’s no surprise that the best in the business head where the best equipment goes.

And while star gazing through telescopes involves scientific calculations and measurements, it also hinges on politics.

Early in the 20th century, only a few colleges like Cal Tech and the University of California colleges possessed the major ground telescopes in the United States. That quasi-monopoly began to erode in the ’60s as more institutions like the University’s astronomy department have acquired co-ownership of many of their own arsenal of telescopes with the aid of other colleges.

Still, it’s not easy for an astronomer to use a ground telescope that’s not controlled by their university, Richstone said. Telescope boards generally favor research proposals of their scientists, he said, and tend to shy away from riskier astronomy projects from outsiders.

Sometimes it even gets personal. It’s not unheard of for a member of a telescope board to reject an astronomer’s proposal simply because they might not like him, Richstone said. Other times, competition between scientists undercuts the chances for a telescope board to accept a research proposal, as Hartmann said he has recently seen with some of his own projects.

“Having your own telescope gives you flexibility,” Hartmann said.

It’s what he learned in 1985 one night while working on a project for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. With some extra telescope time to spare, Hartmann veered off his research and discovered protoplanetary disks that were secreting vast plumes of matter 10 times the size of Jupiter. Hartmann published a series of papers on the major discovery that most likely would have never occurred if not for that extra time afforded by his affiliation with his institute’s telescope.

On so many levels, Richstone said, “A department is only competitive with new technology.”

As a result, the department hopes to cash in with their latest astronomical endeavor, which Richstone is already starting to see the payoffs from.

“There’s no question we have a better faculty because of the project,” he said.

A newcomer to the department, Hartmann agrees as one reason he decided to teach at the University was because of the GMT.

Mo’ Money Mo’ Astronomy

The foundation for the GMT spawned out of the Magellan Project, when in 2002 the consortium of institutions involved recognized the success of their new telescopes. Believing that an even larger version of those models would push astronomy research to a new limit, the partners agreed to use the Magellan Project telescopes as a template for the development of the GMT.

Now they plan on constructing the $500 million observatory somewhere in central or northern Chile.

Although there is no formal agreement obligating the institutions to fund the project, the University’s astronomy department expects to funnel $50 to $70 million to the GMT. But so far, Richstone and his University associates on the project aren’t quite sure where exactly they’ll find the rest of the money.

“Previous generations of telescopes were funded by private gifts,” Richstone said. He added that the department hopes to follow in that same tradition.

Despite the potential to receive private contributions and some federal money to tie up the loose ends, still unaccounted for in the project’s funding formula is the role of the University administration, a major conduit in locating donations.

“If we are going to succeed we absolutely need the help of the central administration. Having the money is the hardest part,” he said.

But the department hasn’t approached the administration asking for financial backing yet.

“We’ve gotten encouragement from the (LSA) college, good financial support. But the University and college budget are very tight,” Richstone said, adding that the other partners involved are facing a similar dilemma.

Rebecca Bernstein, an assistant astronomy professor, summed up the department’s strategy with the University: “You don’t ask until you’ll know they will say yes.”

For now, the department will lie low while it refines its plan until it can present the University with a concrete roadmap to develop the GMT.

Issues remain with funding and the technological components of the telescope, which makes Richstone say that 2020 is perhaps a more realistic date for the GMT’s completion. But he and the department remain confident they can produce the GMT because past underfunded University telescopes, like the Magellan Project, still became a reality.

While Richstone and Hartmann might never have the chance to use the GMT, a younger generation of astronomers at the University, like Bernstein, most likely will.

Bernstein said of the approaching retirements of the two professors, “It’s always been true in astronomy.”

“You spend 15 years building the next generation telescope. It’s a long-term reward,” she said. “And they will invest a lot of great science in it.”

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