High up in Chile’s Las Campanas Observatory, right in the middle of the desert, work will soon start to build the  Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) – the biggest telescope in the world once finished. The site was cleared before, but actual deployment just recently commenced following a $500 million pledge from 11 international partners. The total cost of the project is $1 billion. Once the giant telescope will be open, sometime around 2021, it will be used to peer the sky for neighboring potentially habitable planets, dark matter and dark energy, supermassive black holes and detect some of the first light emitted in the Universe.

Artist impression of Giant Magellan Telescope. Image: GMTO

Artist impression of Giant Magellan Telescope. Image: GMTO

The GMT is expected to take photos 10 times sharper than those taken by the veteran Hubble Space Telescope, which is quite amazing considering it will be deployed on Earth, and not in space. The location in Chile looks particularly good in this respect since the high altitude and remoteness makes it possible to take amazing skyline photos unobstructed by pollution or the busy city lights.

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GMTO president Edward Moses said: “The GMT is a global scientific collaboration, with institutional partners in Australia, Brazil, Korea, the United States, and in host nation Chile. The construction approval means work will begin on the telescope’s core structure and the scientific instruments that lie at the heart of this $1 billion project.

To take the sharpest pictures of objects many light-years away, the GMT relies on a light-gathering array of mirrors collectively measuring 80 feet, much larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s 7.8 foot optical surface. The eight mirrors will be mounted atop  a huge dome structure 22 stories high.

The telescope’s focus will be  discovering Earth-like planets orbiting neighboring stars. Specifically, the GMT will target young stars in constellations like  Orion and Taurus.  It will also look for light bending around a black hole and hunt for the first light in the universe from ancient stars and galaxies from shortly after the Big Bang.

“The new generation of big telescopes is pushing engineering to new limits in the pursuit of incredible scientific discoveries. Larger mirrors let us see fainter objects in more detail, which means we start to see things for the first time that we only thought existed,” said Robert Massey, deputy executive secretary of the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society.

If you thought the GMT is impressive, wait until you hear about the rest of the behemoths slated to scour the sky for the next milestone astronomical discovery. For instance, there’s the Thirty Meter Telescope which is planned to come online in Hawaii in 2022, bearing  98 feet of planned light-gathering power. The project is uncertain at this point, however, since the planned construction site is considered sacred by the Native Hawaiians. If the TMT doesn’t go along, that still leaves us with “godfather”: the 2024 scheduled European Extremely Large Telescope slated to feature 129 feet of tiled mirrors. Check out this amazing chart to get an idea of the scale involved.

giant telescopes

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons