Game-Changing Gambles

The Giant Magellan Telescope picked up Texas-sized momentum last month with a $50 million pledge from the University of Texas. Although it wasn’t our announcement, I found myself nearly as excited as I was on July 22, 2011, when I received the following email from Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff:

Shana, I don’t know if we can announce this yet, but this is a huge achievement! Ask Darren about when this can be made news.

The following news, relayed by Darren DePoy, from the latest GMT Board meeting included the following:

“The GMT1 primary mirror is now at 50nm rms figure. The goal is ~30nm (I think), but even at this level it is the best figured/polished large aspheric optic ever made and probably could be used as is. This is extremely good news!”

This is fantastic! The technology developed by Roger Angel has worked, and we now have a green light to start the other mirrors.

This made my day!

cheers nick

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.)

I’m definitely no scientist, but I’ve always found the GMT’s design beautifully intriguing and absolutely genius because of its originality and flexibility. The scientists behind it had the forethought (no doubt because they knew just how hard a financial sell it would be) to make it operational in stages, allowing for results (pretty sweet ones) even if it never raises enough funds to be fully completed. The fourth mirror represents that critical stage — the turning point. With UT’s pledge, it’s as good as cast, ensuring that, even if the worst comes to pass, the world at least will have more than leftover parts and a shell of a dream (see Texas Superconducting Super Collider) to show for all the hard work and previous investment.

In January, the GMT cleared two major hurdles, passing both its detailed design review and being approved to enter the construction phase. Of course, approval is one thing; having the financing to do so is quite another.

They say timing is everything, and Texas’ bold move couldn’t have happened at a better one. I can’t help but think of George P. Mitchell ’40 and how happy he would be to finally see the day when his home state got off the dime (figuratively and literally), following his own $33.25 million lead in that vital international leadership regard as he saw it.

Mitchell believed in the GMT when few else beyond the project’s originators did. Thank goodness for people like him — an individual not only with the financial wherewithal but also the vision to see the GMT’s potential just as clearly as the scientists behind it. Truly remarkable and heady stuff. And all the more fitting that it’s a pledge from one of his home institutions that likely puts it over the construction hump. Whoop!

So many said it would never get this far. And that such a risky design relying on not one but seven parabolic mirrors that put the double-capital Ps in precision polishing (in addition to being unprecedentedly huge) would never work.

I think as the GMT enters construction, its marvel will become more apparent. It’s hard to fundraise in the abstract, long-term, but once the project’s partners have a tangible object and definable, measurable progress underway, it will be far easier to visualize the possibility-laden bandwagon onto which these institutions are imploring donors as well as global science to jump.

Oh, and that first mirror and all its precision-polishing-representing-pioneering-scientific-achievement glory that Dr. Suntzeff was so ecstatic about in his email? It’s named for Mr. Mitchell. Oh, the places it will go and things it will help see!

The Giant Magellan Telescope's first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona's Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively. GMT1/"George" (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile -- a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT's seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.

The Giant Magellan Telescope’s first two mirrors, pictured last August within the University of Arizona’s Steward Mirror Lab. Known as GMT1 and GMT2, they are named for George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell, respectively.
GMT1/”George” (left) is packaged and ready to head to Chile — a feat of logistics and exercise in trust by any stretch! Each of the GMT’s seven mirrors will travel by truck down Interstate 10 to a port in California, then via ship to a port near Las Campanas, Chile, and finally via another truck up a mountain in the Atacama Desert near the existing twin Magellan telescopes. By comparison, the mirrors for those are 6.5 meters in diameter, while each GMT mirror measures 8.4 meters.

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