Korea joins the Giant Magellan Telescope project

Sunday, February 08, 2009

I've often (lightly) criticized Korea for only having a 1.8-metre telescope as the nation's largest telescope in spite of the size of its economy, but now that KASI (Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute) has decided to join the Giant Magellan Telescope Project I might have to stop making fun.

Here's the press release:

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) Corporation is pleased to announce that nine astronomical research organizations from three continents have signed the Founders’ Agreement to construct and operate the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in the Andes Mountains of Chile. In the United States the participating institutions are the Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A& M University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin. The two Australian members of the Founders group are the Australian National University and Astronomy Australia Limited. Most recently, the South Korean government has approved participation in the GMT project, with the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute as the representative of the Korean astronomical community.
And here's what makes this telescope awesome:

With its seven co-mounted 8.4-meter primary segments and adaptive secondary system, the GMT will provide unique capabilities in optical and infrared astronomy, it will open new windows onto the Universe and help answer questions that cannot be answered with existing facilities. The GMT will teach us about the nature of dark matter and dark energy, the origin of the first stars and first galaxies, the mysteries of star and planet formation, galaxy evolution, and black hole growth. The GMT will also play a key role in the detection and imaging of planets around nearby stars.

Scheduled for completion around 2019, the GMT will have the resolving power of a single 24.5- meter (80-foot) primary mirror. Each of the primary mirror segments weighs 20 tons, and the telescope enclosure has a height of about 200 feet. The project is aiming to complete the detailed design for this telescope over the next two years. Fundraising for the project is ongoing. A total of $130 million out of approximately $700 million needed has been raised to date. Construction will begin in 2012.
I might be way off base here, but since we're right on the verge of being able to discover second Earths in other solar systems, I bet that by the time this telescope goes into service we'll have so many of these planets to keep an eye on that telescopes like this will spend almost all their time observing them in order to try to get an idea of which ones might contain life and / or civilizations. Dark matter and dark energy are all interesting but once we all of a sudden have a number of places that we could visit if we could just get there, wouldn't that take priority?

Imagine this for example. You have a fixed amount of time and a number of targets to choose from. You have a few thousand (okay, a few hundred million) of these:

or a few hundred/thousand targets that may look something like this:

That image is actually Pangaea, but imagine that it's another planet (one of many), or what we expect these other planets to look like but at the moment we still don't know all that much about them and now we have a sparkling new telescope that will be able to shed more light on what kind of planets they are. Wouldn't those targets all of a sudden take priority in our most advanced telescopes as opposed to the interesting and useful but rather esoteric targets like other galaxies?


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