Texas A&M University and its partners in the Giant Magellan Telescope Corporation announced today (Mar. 5) that fabrication has begun for the sixth of seven mirrors which will form the heart of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) — mirrors that in combination will allow astronomers to see farther into the universe with more detail than any other optical telescope before.
The mirror, which measures 8.4 meters (27.5 feet) and is about two stories high when standing on edge, is being cast at the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory and will take nearly four years to complete through an intricate process of casting, cooling, and polishing to achieve its final precise shape using state-of-the-art technology developed by the University of Arizona.
Previous GMT mirror castings, revered as a marvel of modern engineering, were celebrated with large in-person event featuring attendees from all over the world. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, work on the sixth mirror began behind closed doors to protect the health of the 10-person mirror casting team at the lab.
Join Steward Observatory live on YouTube this Saturday (Mar. 6) from 1:30 to 2:30 MST to learn about the fabrication of the world’s largest telescope mirrors and the science that the Giant Magellan Telescope will enable!
“The most important part of a telescope is its light-collecting mirror,” said GMT Project Manager James Fanson. “The larger the mirror, the deeper we can see into the universe and the more detail we can observe. The Giant Magellan Telescope’s unique primary mirror design consists of seven of the world’s largest mirrors. Casting the sixth mirror is a major step toward completion. Once operational, the Giant Magellan Telescope will produce images ten times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. The discoveries these mirrors will make will transform our understanding of the universe.”
The process of casting each giant mirror involves melting nearly 20 tons (38,490 pounds) of high-purity, low-expansion, borosilicate glass (called E6 glass) which is placed by hand into a pre-loaded hexagonal mold within the world’s only spinning furnace designed to cast giant mirrors for telescopes. At the peak of the melting process, the furnace spins at five revolutions per minute, heating the glass to 1,165 degrees Celsius (2,129 Fahrenheit) for approximately five hours until it liquefies into the mold. The peak temperature event is called “high fire” and will occur on March 6, 2021. The mirror then enters a one-month annealing process where the glass is cooled while the furnace spins at a slower rate in order to remove internal stresses and toughen the glass. It takes another 1.5 months to cool to room temperature. This “spin cast” process gives the mirror surface its special parabolic shape. Once cooled, the mirror will be polished for two years before reaching an optical surface precision of less than one thousandth of the width of a human hair, or five times smaller than a single coronavirus particle.
“I am tremendously proud of how the operations of the mirror lab have adapted to the pandemic, allowing our talented and dedicated members of the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab to safely continue to produce the mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope,” said Buell Jannuzi, Director of Steward Observatory and Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona.
With the first two giant mirrors completed and in storage in Tucson, the sixth mirror joins three others in various stages of production at the mirror lab. The third mirror’s front surface polishing has achieved 70 nanometer accuracy and is less than one year from completion. The fourth mirror has completed rear surface polishing, and load spreaders are being attached to allow the mirror to be manipulated during operation. The fifth mirror was cast in November 2017, and the seventh mirror is expected to be cast in 2023. In addition, an eighth spare mirror is planned to be made that can be swapped in when another mirror requires maintenance.
Did You Know? The GMT’s first two mirrors are named in honor of 1940 Texas A&M distinguished petroleum engineering graduate George P. Mitchell and his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell. Mitchell, who passed away in 2013 and once built his own telescope as a high school student, committed $33.25 million to the Giant Magellan Telescope. His generous support for the next-generation, ground-based wonder was bookended by his lead gift of $1.25 million in 2004 to establish Texas A&M University as a founding partner and in 2011, a $25 million gift involving another of his visionary legacies, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, credited equally to Texas A&M and the Carnegie Institution for Science.
In the late 2020s, the giant mirrors will be transported more than 8,100 kilometers (5,000 miles) to the Giant Magellan Telescope’s future home in the Chilean Atacama Desert at Las Campanas Observatory more than 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level. The site is known for being one of the best astronomical sites on the planet, with its clear skies, low light pollution, and stable airflow producing exceptionally sharp images. Additionally, the site’s southern hemisphere location gives the extremely large telescope access to the center of the Milky Way, which is of interest for many reasons, including the fact that it is the home to the nearest supermassive black hole as well as many of the most interesting nearby galaxies. The southern hemisphere is also home to some of the most powerful observatories working at other wavelengths, making it the ideal location for synergistic scientific observations.
Once the Giant Magellan Telescope becomes fully operational, its seven mirror-array will have a total light collecting area of 368 square meters (3,961 square feet) — enough to see the torch engraved on a dime from nearly 160 kilometers (100 miles) away. Such viewing power is 10 times greater than the famed Hubble Space Telescope and four times greater than the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, expected to launch in late 2021. The mirrors are also a crucial part of the optical design that allows the Giant Magellan Telescope to have the widest field of view of any extremely large telescope (ELT) in the 30-meter class. The unique optical design will make the Giant Magellan Telescope the most optically efficient ELT when it comes to making use of every photon of light that the mirrors collect — only two reflections are required to direct light to the wide field instruments and only three reflections to provide light to the instruments that use small fields of view and the highest possible spatial resolutions.
“This unprecedented combination of light gathering power, efficiency, and image resolution will enable us to make new discoveries across all fields of astronomy, particularly fields that require the highest spatial and spectral resolutions, like the search for other Earths,” said GMT Chief Scientist Rebecca Bernstein. “We will have unique capabilities for studying planets at high resolution, which is the key to understanding if a planet has a rocky composition like our Earth, if it contains liquid water, and if its atmosphere contains the right combination of molecules to signal the presence of life.”
To learn more about astronomy at Texas A&M, go to https://physics.tamu.edu/research/astronomy/.
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About the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization: The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) manages the GMT project on behalf of its international partners: Arizona State University, Astronomy Australia Ltd., The Australian National University, Carnegie Institution for Science, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, Harvard University, Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, The University of Arizona, The University of Chicago, and The University of Texas at Austin. For more information, visit www.gmto.org.
About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to scholarship and discovery, including science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M generated annual expenditures of more than $1.131 billion in fiscal year 2020. Texas A&M ranked in the top 25 of the most recent National Science Foundation Higher Education Research and Development survey based on expenditures of more than $952 million in fiscal year 2019. Texas A&M’s research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental, and applied contributions resulting in economic benefits to the state, nation, and world. To learn more, visit [email protected] A&M.