Construction of a giant new telescope began with a bang Friday as workers blew the top off Las Campanas Peak in Chile live on the web.
At an altitude of 8,500 feet in the high Atacama desert, Las Campanas sees 300 sunny days a year, a perfect setting for the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope, which will sport six huge mirrors stretching a total of 82 feet across. When completed in about eight years, the GMT's giant eye will be 10 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, ideal for research on deep space objects.
Workers on Friday began the long process of leveling the top of Las Campanas, where the telescope and support buildings will be built. The explosion blew a puff of tan dirt and rocks sky-high just before noon Eastern time. “That was a short fuse,” said one of the Chilean officials on hand for the explosion. “It went off a minute and a half early so we couldn't do a countdown.”
The Carnegie Institution of Washington is one of the many sponsors of the GMT, which is one of two new super-sized telescopes in the works. This new generation of instruments promises to revolutionize astronomy by peering deep into space in a search for distant galaxies and other exotic objects.
The telescope will also try to probe dark matter and dark energy, which together make up most of the 'stuff' of the universe but whose nature has befuddled cosmologists. The European Extremely Large Telescope, which is in the planning stages, will sport an even bigger mirror and will be built nearby. Chile has become an astronomical haven, with the European Southern Observatory already operating several big telescopes in the high desert, where the air is clear and light pollution is minimal.
Besides Carnegie, the GMT partners include Astronomy Australia Ltd., The Australian National University, Harvard University, Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution,The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, The University of Arizona, and the University of Chicago.
See how the 80-foot GMT will look after it is completed in 2018: