Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab

When astronomers point their telescopes up at the sky to see distant supernovae or quasars, they’re collecting light that’s traveled millions or even billions of light-years through space. Even huge and powerful energy sources in the cosmos are unimaginably tiny and faint when we view them from such a distance. In order to learn about galaxies as they were forming soon after the Big Bang, and about nearby but much smaller and fainter objects, astronomers need more powerful telescopes.

Detectors in research telescopes are already so sensitive that they capture almost every incoming photon, so there’s only one way to detect fainter objects and resolve structure on finer scales: build a bigger telescope. A large telescope doesn’t just capture more photons, it can also produce sharper images. That’s because the wave nature of light sets a limit to the telescope’s resolution, known as the diffraction limit; the sharpness of the image depends on the wavelength of the light and the telescope’s diameter.

Here at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab (RFCML), we finished making the first Giant Magellan Telescope segment in 2012. After a pause for work on two other mirrors, the lab is in the process of grinding Segments 2 and 3. Segment 4 has just finished cooling to room temperature after spin-casting in September 2015. We are well on the way to manufacturing the full 25-meter primary mirror.

An 8.4-meter mirror for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope being polished at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab. Steward Observatory, University of Arizona

Getting these near-perfect mirrors from our lab in Arizona to a mountaintop in Chile presents another set of challenges. They travel by tractor-trailer on land, and by freight ship from California to Chile. The keys to safe transport are distributing the weight of the mirror over hundreds of support points and having several layers of suspension between the mirror and the road or ship deck.

The GMT project schedule calls for a preliminary first light, with four segments installed in the telescope, in 2022. We expect all seven segments to be scanning the cosmos starting in 2024.

Many of us who work on the GMT see it as the way to open new windows into the universe, as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has done over the last 25 years. That orbiting telescope was a generous gift to the next generation from the people who worked on the project for decades before it launched. HST’s deep space images amazed, motivated and inspired many of us on Earth. The GMT project team dreams of passing on a similar gift for future generations.

Buddy Martin (RFCML Chief Scientist) and Dae Wook Kim (LOFT group PI)

* Note: This introduction is edited from the original THE CONVERSATION / TIME articles published in 2016.

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