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Visions of a Giant Telescope
By Ezra Billinkoff

An artist's rendering of the mirror assembly for the Giant Magellan Telescope.
An artist's rendering of the mirror assembly for the Giant Magellan Telescope.
(Photo: GMT Consortium )
October 11—Astronomers from all over the country have begun working to create what will one day be the world's largest telescope. "It was kind of a distant dream at first," Dr. Wendy Freedman, the project's director, told Scholastic News Online. "But it's in us—that curiosity."

Dr. Freedman is talking about the curiosity that has driven her and a team of astronomers to design and build the Giant Magellan Telescope that will one day sit in the Andes Mountains in Chile, a country in South America. The telescope is named for Fernando Magellan, a Portuguese navigator who tried to circumnavigate the globe (go all the way around the earth) in the early 16th century.

Astronomers will have the power to see four times farther than ever before. They'll be able to find very distant objects in the far reaches of space. Many of these objects could answer questions about the beginning of space. "It would open a completely new window into the universe," Dr. Freedman said.

The sharper images that the Giant Magellan can produce will also allow astronomers to see more. A new "masking" technology allows for people using the telescope to block out certain parts of the sky so that bright objects like stars can't hide other important objects like planets.

Making It Work

Telescopes use mirrors to reflect light from space. The Giant Magellan Telescope is no different, except its mirrors are enormous. Each of its seven mirrors is 27 feet across. They will sit in a honeycomb pattern with six mirrors surrounding one central mirror. Together, the mirrors will have the light-gathering power of a 70-foot mirror.

Chile may seem like a random place to put a telescope or an observatory, a building with an open roof that allows for the use of a telescope. Dr. Freedman explained the choice of the Andes Mountains location to Scholastic News Online. "It's dry, clear, and away from cities." Any light can make it harder to see into the sky.

By 2013, they will have completed four of the seven mirrors. At that point, the Giant Magellan will be the largest telescope in the world, but the dreaming doesn't stop there. Three years later—in 2016—all seven mirrors will be done.

At the University of Arizona, one scientist from the team is overseeing the formation of the first mirror in a massive furnace. Through a very hot and complicated process, each mirror takes about a year to cast, or form.

Thinking Big

By asking questions and finding ways to answer them, scientists continue to solve the mysteries of our world. "We have this opportunity to address many of these questions by looking back," said Dr. Freedman to Scholastic News Online. "It's a built in time machine."

The Giant Magellan Telescope is one more step toward greater technology that allows the world's scientists to do more and accomplish more. "I think it's a natural part of who we are as humans," said Dr. Freedman. "There's a built in curiosity to know where we come from, how the universe started, how the universe has changed over timeā€¦ It's a very exciting time."