Press and News

Spring 2011

Focus on Australia/ANU

The Australian government has designated astronomy and space science a priority for investment, and is generously financing Australian participation both in Square Kilometre Array Pathfinders (ASKAP’s) and in the GMT project. The Australian astronomical community is distributed among a dozen universities, agencies and departments, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO, which operates major radio astronomy facilities) and the Department of Innovation, Industry, S cience and Research (a government department that operates the Australian Astronomical Observatory, previously the Anglo-Australian Observatory).

Dr. Penny Sackett

Dr. Penny Sackett

Long-term planning occurs both through the National Committee for Astronomy of the Australian Academy of Science, and via Astronomy Australia Ltd (AAL), an AURA/AUI-like body. The country’s major dark-sky optical observatory at Siding Spring NSW is operated by the Australian National University (ANU) and hosts facilities from the USA, Korea, Poland and the UK, as well as from diverse Australian research groups and organizations.

Australia aims to realize a 10% access to GMT, with the ANU acting as the managing and national coordinating organization on behalf of the government and research community. ANU was one of the earliest partners in the project, choosing GMT over other ELT programs because of GMT’s lower risk profile and close match of science objectives. ANU made the decision to join GMT during a difficult time following the 2003 bushfires that destroyed all of the telescopes and engineering facilities at Mt. Stromlo, including the Gemini North-bound Near-IR Integral Field Spectrograph instrument (NIFS).

ANU has always had a close working relationship with a core of Australian industry. One of its own spin off companies, Auspace Limited, collaborated successfully to quickly rebuild and deliver the NIFS instrument. In parallel, then Director at Mt. Stromlo, Penny Sackett set about to rebuild ANU’s engineering capability for astronomy. Today the ANU showcases its Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC) as a centre-of-excellence for astronomical instrumentation, adaptive optics systems development, and even small satellite integration and test. Currently ANU has embarked on a $6.4M extension offering new laboratory space and a Class-10000 clean-room in which specialized electro-optical integration can take place. The extension will be complete in the third quarter of 2011.

ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC)

ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC)

The AITC is the laboratory in which the ANU proposes to design, construct and test the GMT Integral Field Spectrograph (GMTIFS), hoped to be a first-light instrument on GMT. The laboratory also is home to the R&D group of EOS Space Systems Pty Ltd, a leading laser ranging and telescope construction company. Jointly, ANU and EOS-SS are developing adaptive optics technologies for both astronomical and space debris programs. And the Tucson branch of EOS specializes in automated, wide-field, rapid-response telescopes, in recent years delivering the ANU SkyMapper and the University of Hawaii Pan-STARRS PS1 instruments.

Since 2003, the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Mt. Stromlo has gone through a dramatic rejuvenation process. The GMT project is contributing to the effort by providing the school with an exciting future at the forefront of astronomical science.

Visit ANU’s website.

GMT Project Scientist Stephen Shectman

Dr. Stephen Shectman

Dr. Stephen Shectman

As GMT Project Scientist, Dr. Stephen Shectman provides top-level leadership in all technical areas of the project, from design of the telescope and its optics to development of scientific instruments and critical sub-systems. A member of the scientific staff at the Carnegie Observatories for 35 years, Steve’s scientific interests include the study of large-scale structure in the distribution of galaxies and the search for the oldest stars in the halo of the Milky Way. He has also been a leader in the development of astronomical instrumentation and in the construction of the Magellan 6.5-m telescopes.

Early in his career, Steve developed a series of photon-counting detectors for faint-object spectroscopy. He used these detectors to measure galaxy redshifts and, together with his collaborators, discovered the Bootes Void, a conspicuous early example of the large voids which are characteristic of the filamentary distribution of galaxies. He then constructed a multi-fiber system with the ability to measure the redshifts of more than 100 galaxies in a single exposure, and used this system on the 2.5-m du Pont telescope to conduct the Las Campanas Redshift Survey of more than 25,000 galaxies. The LCRS was the definitive redshift survey of the time, and one of the first to convincingly show that the distribution of galaxies becomes homogeneous on large scales.

Working with George Preston, Steve conducted an objective-prism survey for stars deficient in heavy elements, again using his detectors to obtain follow-up spectra of several thousand candidates from the objective-prism plates. Until recently, this survey accounted for the majority of known stars with heavy-element abundances less than 1% of the Sun’s. These objects are diagnostic of the earliest stages of nucleosynthesis in successive generations of stars, and have been extremely interesting targets for more detailed studies by many investigators.

Steve was the Magellan Project Scientist from the earliest phases of the conceptual design through the completion and commissioning of the two 6.5-m Magellan telescopes. He was involved in many of the key decisions which resulted in the superb performance of these telescopes and was responsible for the innovative optical design of the telescopes and many of their auxiliary instruments.

Steve received a B.S. in physics from Yale University in 1969 and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 1973. He was awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in 1984 and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. In 2005 he received the Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation from the American Astronomical Society, and in 2008, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the Jackson-Gwilt Medal for his exceptional work in developing astronomical instrumentation and in constructing telescopes.

Discovering New Worlds with GMT

McD_logoThe McDonald Observatory Board of Visitors (BOV) 19th Biannual meeting in Austin, Texas on February 18th and 19th was a wonderful opportunity for BOV members and the general public to learn about the Giant Magellan Telescope.

On Friday evening Dr. Patrick McCarthy, Director of the Giant Magellan Telescope Project, gave a presentation entitled “Technical Challenges for The Giant Magellan Telescope” to more than 140 BOV members and guests at the evening banquet. The rapt audience learned how the GMT partners, and the two Texas institutions in particular, are approaching the scientific and technical challenges involved in building a telescope the size of a 10 story building while maintaining the precision required to produce spectacular images and spectra of the most distant objects in the Universe.

The first extrasolar planet was discovered in 1995. In just sixteen years a massive global effort by the astronomical community has led to the discovery of hundreds of extrasolar planets with a wide range of properties. The unexpected discoveries have raised questions about planetary systems, for example: Are some extrasolar planets rocky like the Earth or are they primarily gaseous like Jupiter? One of the most puzzling mysteries is why so many planetary systems are so very different from our own solar system.

University of Texas at Austin Professor of Astronomy Dan Jaffe addressed these and other questions on Saturday in his BOV 19th Annual Great Lecture in Astronomy “Exploring Newly Discovered Worlds with the Giant Magellan Telescope.”

The BOV members were joined by a large assembly of astronomy enthusiasts to hear Professor Jaffe discuss the exciting future of extrasolar-planet studies and how a new generation of large ground-based telescopes, and particularly the Giant Magellan Telescope, will enable direct measurements that can address questions about exoplanets approaching the size and mass of planets like Earth but residing in star systems many light years away. Professor Jaffe and his colleagues at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute are designing an instrument for GMT that will probe the chemistry and dynamics of young stars and planetary systems. This device and other innovative instruments on the GMT will move us from the discovery of strange new worlds to an era in which we can study their properties in detail.

Learn more about The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory and Department of Astronomy Board of Visitors…

KASI President Honored at Special Ceremony

Seok Jae Park and Wendy Freedman

Seok Jae Park and Wendy Freedman

Byeong-Gon Park and Seok Jae Park

Byeong-Gon Park and Seok Jae Park

Dr. Seok Jae Park was recently honored for his visionary role in propelling the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI) to becoming a founding, and the only Asian, member of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) project at a special ceremony on February 8, 2011, at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena. President of KASI since 2005, following a long history of leadership of the Korean astronomical community, Dr. Park made KASI’s partnership in GMT a reality when he signed the Founders’ Agreement in 2009.

Dr. Wendy Freedman (Chair of the GMTO Board and Director of the Carnegie Observatories) highlighted Dr. Park’s accomplishments since joining KASI as a principal researcher in 1992. She concluded by presenting Dr. Park with a special certificate and a commemorative piece of glass from the casting of the first GMT mirror.

Dr. Byeong-Gon Park (KASI’s director of Optical/Infrared Astronomy Division and the current Korean GMT Project Officer and GMTO Board Member) was on hand to participate in the ceremony. Joining the festivities were GMT Project Manager Keith Raybould, Chief Systems Engineer Matt Johns, and other members of the GMT staff, community members and representatives of the press.

To learn more about KASI, visit KASI’s website.

Upcoming Events

A GMT Exoplanet Workshop will be held at Phillips Auditorium at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics on October 17th and 18th, 2011. For program, registration and accommodations, please visit the workshop’s info pages.