Houston businessman George P. Mitchell has taken another pioneering step in his personal quest to position Texas A&M University as an international leader in fundamental physics and astronomy.
Mitchell, a 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate and founder of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., and The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation have agreed to a landmark $25 million gift to the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) Corporation toward construction of the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope, a next-generation, ground-based wonder poised to open a new window on the Universe for the 21st century.
Mitchell’s gift is being made through the Carnegie Institution for Science, home of Carnegie Observatories and headquarters of the GMTO, which manages the telescope project. Half of the gift, or $12.5 million, will be credited to Texas A&M, bringing Mitchell’s total commitments to the GMT on behalf of Texas A&M to nearly $21 million.
Mitchell’s previous pledges to the GMT are bookended by a five-year, $5 million gift to Texas A&M last fall and the original $1.25 million contribution he and his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell, made in 2004 to establish his alma mater as a founding partner in the world’s largest telescope and heir apparent to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope — one with the power to solve many of the Universe’s most intriguing scientific puzzles.
“This gift not only brings the dream of the Giant Magellan Telescope much closer to becoming reality, but also helps propel Texas A&M and the entire State of Texas to the forefront in the important fields of physics and astronomy,” said Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin. “We are extremely grateful to Mr. Mitchell for his profound vision and his significant investment in our shared future.”
Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, director of Texas A&M’s astronomy program and holder of the Mitchell-Heep-Munnerlyn Endowed Chair in Observational Astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, lauded Mitchell’s continued financial support for Texas A&M’s burgeoning astronomy program, singling out his GMT gifts as being particularly vital to its overall success.
“We are approximately one-third of the way funded, and as such, I’m very optimistic this will get built,” Suntzeff said. “We greatly appreciate Mr. Mitchell’s visionary support of the GMT and of Texas A&M Astronomy.”
To date $255.5 million has been raised in support of the GMT, viewed as one of the most viable successors to the Hubble Telescope that has served as scientists’ premier source for the most important astronomical discoveries for decades. Towering above a Chilean mountaintop at a colossal perch of 200 feet and equipped with seven 8.4-meter primary mirror segments weighing in at 20 tons apiece that together will provide the power of a single 25-meter mirror, the GMT will rank as the world’s largest and most powerful telescope capable of collecting 70 times more light — thereby enabling images up to 10 times sharper — than the Hubble.
The GMT is set to begin science operations at the Las Campanas Observatory site in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile in 2018, about the same time the orbiting Hubble is expected to deteriorate beyond the point of functionality. Thanks to Texas A&M’s Munnerlyn Astronomical Laboratory and the expertise of its director, Dr. Darren L. DePoy, holder of the Rachal-Mitchell-Heep Endowed Professorship in Physics, Texas A&M will be leading the development of its state-of-the-art instruments that will enable major breakthroughs, such as direct visual images of planets around other stars and the first galaxies in the Universe. The GMT is expected to unlock the secrets of the very early Universe — the first stars, galaxies and black holes that formed — and to give perhaps the first definitive answer as to whether or not there is life beyond Earth.
“The gift from Mr. Mitchell and The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation comes at an extremely important time to help fund the final design of the telescope, which will put the GMT well ahead of the other giant telescope project funded out of California,” Suntzeff said. “Our design is significantly less expensive and technologically less challenging than the California project. We will be on the sky first, and I hope we will therefore be first to make the major discoveries in the next decade here in Texas. It is our intent to partner with the outstanding high-tech industry we have in Texas to design and construct major parts of the telescope.”
Armed with the GMT’s unparalleled insights into optical and infrared astronomy not possible using current technology, scientists hope to unravel new details about the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy. They also hope to use the GMT as a “time machine” to peer back into the cosmos to detect the origins of the very first stars and galaxies.
“We will be able to point this telescope anywhere in the southern skies and see farther than anyone else on Earth, even very close to the edge of the Universe with a telescope of this size and quality,” Suntzeff said.
Back in 2004, it was Mitchell’s initial gift to the GMT on behalf of Texas A&M that not only launched the university’s astronomy program but also spurred the University of Texas at Austin to provide matching that established the two flagship universities as original partners in the GMT project. They, along with eight other major international research organizations — the Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, the Australian National University, Astronomy Australia Limited, and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute — are collaborating to construct and operate the mammoth 25-meter telescope.
Mitchell said he felt compelled to make yet another generous gift to help ensure that Texas A&M’s team of world-class astronomers had adequate time to use the GMT upon its completion — all but guaranteeing that Texas A&M will be at the helm of the highly anticipated new discoveries the gigantic telescope is expected to uncover.
“The GMT is one of the reasons these researchers came to Texas A&M in the first place,” Mitchell said. “Hubble will be out of commission in the next 5 or 6 years. More money means more observation time, and it’s important our researchers get that time with the GMT.”
Thanks to Mitchell’s contributions to the GMT, the possibilities for Texas A&M’s future as a premier astronomy research institution are seemingly endless, according to Suntzeff.
“This will cement Texas A&M as one of the top schools in astronomy and astronomical instrumentation,” he said. “With the GMT, Texas A&M will be the leader in many tremendous new discoveries with our outstanding faculty. The hardest thing to do is to get a project like this off the ground, and Mr. Mitchell’s gifts have made that possible.”
Throughout a successful career in the petroleum industry, Mitchell retained a lifelong interest in physics and astronomy, an interest he shared with his late wife, Cynthia. Their visionary support of the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy has played a leading role in its skyrocketing rise to national prominence. In addition to a $35 million gift in 2005 toward the construction of the $82.5 million George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Buildings, the couple has provided funding toward 10 academic chairs and professorships, a post-doctoral fellowship in astronomy, and a related lecture series. The Mitchell family’s generous support of Texas A&M’s programs in fundamental physics and astronomy totals more than $68 million since 2002.
For decades, the Mitchells have been major benefactors of Texas A&M’s marine-oriented branch campus in Galveston. Among other gifts for Texas A&M University at Galveston, he donated the 135 acres where its main campus is located and which carries his father’s name. They also provided major funding for Texas A&M’s statistics and petroleum engineering departments and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Outdoor Tennis Center.
Find additional information on the GMT as well as the science it will perform.
Learn more about Texas A&M astronomy.
Click here to read the official press release from the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) Corporation and Carnegie.
Click here to read a related story in the Houston Chronicle.