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Giant Magellan Telescope construction begins in Chile

The telescope isn't expected to be completed until 2021, and may not be operational until 2024.

By
Brooks Hays
An artistic rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. Photo by GMTO Corporation/University of Texas
An artistic rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert. Photo by GMTO Corporation/University of Texas

ATACAMA, Chile, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- Engineers, astronomers and leaders from a variety of international universities and research institutions gathered on Chile's Cerro Las Campanas on Wednesday to celebrate the groundbreaking for the Giant Magellan Telescope.

When completed, officials say it will be the largest telescope in the world, boasting an 80-foot-wide primary mirror system and capable of creating high-res images 10 times sharper than those produced by Hubble.

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Once online, GMT will be able to locate the first objects to give off light in the universe and help astrophysicists study dark matter in greater detail. GMT will also aid space telescopes like Kepler in the search for habitable exoplanets.

Cerro Las Campanas, the peak the telescope will be perched atop, rises 8,200 feet out of Chile's Atacama Desert. It's part of a long mountain ridge that hosts several other telescopes. Collectively, the telescopes make up what's called the Las Campanas Observatory, which is owned and operated by the Carnegie Institution for Science.

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The Atacama Desert is blessed with immense black skies. Little rain and few clouds mean skies are more often clear and ripe for gazing into deep space. The environment and atmosphere in the desert is also, predictably, very dry -- an advantage for astronomers and their telescopes.

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Astronomy and water just don't mix very well," Patrick McCarthy, vice president of the Giant Magellan Telescope Corporation, told NBC News.

Water absorbs light and distorts the view of distant space. An arid environment ensures great clarity.

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Some 88,000 cubic feet of rock have already been removed from the now-flattened peak. Construction workers will begin building the telescopes base and bringing in already constructed parts, assembling components piece by piece. The telescope isn't expected to be completed until 2021, and may not be operational until 2024.

Nonetheless, those involved with the project are excited about the progress.

"We are thrilled to be breaking ground on the Giant Magellan Telescope site at such an exciting time for astronomy," Taft Armandroff, GMT board chair, said in a press release. "With its unprecedented size and resolving power, the Giant Magellan Telescope will allow current and future generations of astronomers to continue the journey of cosmic discovery."

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