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Aussies to help build Super Scope

Artist's impression of Giant Magellan Telescope

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope, for which ANU teams will design and build instrumentation.

  • Giant Magellan Telescope will be the biggest optical telescope in the world
  • It’ll produce images 30 times sharper than currently possible from the ground
  • ANU teams will contribute instrumentation to give GMT its ‘eyes’

AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY researchers are helping to build a super-sized telescope that will allow scientists to see deeper into space in the visible light range than ever before.

The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)—with a primary mirror the equivalent of 24.5 metres in diameter—will produce astronomical images up to 30 times sharper than existing ground-based telescopes.

Launching the next stage of the ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC) at Mount Stromlo in Canberra, Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said the GMT promises to answer some of astronomy’s biggest questions.

“It will tell us about the early universe including formation of the first stars and the evolution of galaxies only a few million years after the Big Bang,” Senator Carr said.

The ANU—which is developing instrumentation for the $700 million telescope—is part of an international consortium that will build the telescope in the Chilean Andes.

Artist's impression of Giant Magellan Telescope

The $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope will see 30 times sharper than current ground-based telescopes.

The government is contributing nearly $90 million towards the telescope through the Education Investment Fund—$65 million for our share of construction costs and $23.4 million to ANU for enhancements to the AITC, development of new instruments for the telescope and for industry engagement.

The funding, on behalf of the ANU and the Australian astronomical community through Astronomy Australia Ltd, would buy Australian astronomers time on the telescope once it is operational later this decade.

“This will be the premier optical-infrared facility for our astronomers. Being part of the consortium building the telescope will keep Australia at the forefront of optical astronomy, complementing the radio-based capabilities of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA),” Senator Carr said. “The association will further strengthen our case to host the SKA.

Australia’s part in building the GMT is expected to create at least 95 highly skilled jobs and at least 145 other supporting positions.

History of innovation

The ANU, through its Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA, and its forerunner, the Mount Stromlo & Siding Spring Observatory, MSSSO) has a long history of technological innovation, and has designed and built instrumentation that is now used in Australia and overseas.

In the early 1980s, the then MSSSO built the 2.3-metre Advanced Technology Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory. It featured an altitude-azimuth (‘swivel and tilt’) mounting design, which was very uncommon at the time but which has become the standard for large telescope these days.

GSAOI being lifted into place

The ANU-designed Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager (GSAOI) being lifted into place on the Gemini South telescope in Chile.

This was followed by several advanced imaging and spectrographic instruments for Australian and international observatories, including the European Southern Observatory in Chile, plus equipment for an astronomy site testing station in Antarctica.

In more recent times, RSAA has designed and built instruments for some of the largest telescopes in the world.

One of these units is NIFS—the Near-infrared Integral-Field Spectrograph—which is used on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, one of the largest telescopes in the world. Worth $6 million, NIFS was designed by RSAA and rebuilt by Canberra firm AUSPACE (after the original NIFS was destroyed in the Canberra bushfires in 2003).

NIFS enables astronomers to observe astronomical objects at a resolution on par with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another success story is GSAOI—the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager—which is due to go live on Gemini South later this year. GSAOI is a wide-field imaging system that operates in the near-infrared part of the spectrum and, like NIFS, gives almost Hubble-like views of the cosmos.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Images courtesy ANU / GMT Office / Gemini Observatory.

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