Giant New Telescope Gets $50 Million In Funding
An illustration of the planned Giant Magellan Telescope to be built at Las Campanas Observatory near La Serena, Chile by 2018.
Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope — GMTO Corporation

Plans for an enormous new telescope in Chile took a major step forward this week with a $50 million infusion from the University of Chicago to aid the observatory's construction.

The new observatory, called the Giant Magellan Telescope, is designed to detect objects 100 times fainter than those seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. The University of Chicago funds will help cover the anticipated $700 million cost for the telescope, which astrophysicists hope will be able to collect valuable data needed to make strides in understanding dark matter and dark energy, the project's planners said.

The Giant Magellan Telescope will consist of six circular mirrors, each 28 feet (8.4 meters) across, set in a flower-petal arrangement around a seventh central mirror to make up the GMT's main mirror.  Together, the mirrors form the equivalent of a nearly 82-foot (24.5-meter) telescope. The new telescope will be built at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and should take about seven years to complete.

While the Giant Magellan Telescope won't beat out the world's largest telescope currently planned — the 138-foot (42-meter) diameter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) currently under construction in the mountains of Chile's Atacama desert — it is still expected to be one of Earth's most powerful lenses to study the heavens. 

Dark matter and dark energy are two central mysteries of modern cosmology. Though neither has been detected directly, scientists suspect they exist because of their perceived affect on the rest of the matter in the universe.

By gathering more observations of the distant universe, astronomers hope to better understand these puzzling quantities. The new telescope could play a major role in that quest, scientists said.

Researchers also plan to use the telescope to search for alien planets orbiting around other suns.

"This is part of the goal of looking for Earth-like planets around other stars that could be the sites for life," said Edward Kolb, chairman of the University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "This is one of the new avenues that the Giant Magellan Telescope will open, in addition to being able to look at the sky with unprecedented resolution and light-gathering power." 

The total price tag for the instrument will be split among its partners: the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, Australian National University, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the University of Arizona, Texas A&M University, Astronomy Australia Ltd., and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute.