Next-Gen Megascope for Astronomy Taking Shape on Chilean Mountaintop | 5/20/2019 | Mike Wall
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An arid mountaintop in the Chilean Andes is being transformed into a next-generation astronomy hub.

Hard-rock excavation at the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) site — a patch of rocky desert 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level, about a 2-hour drive from the coastal town of La Sirena — wrapped up in March. And the project team recently selected a contractor to build the mount, a steel structure that will house the huge telescope's mirrors and scientific instruments.

Core - Observatory - Robert - Shelton - President

"This is the core of the observatory," said Robert Shelton, president of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization Corp.

Mount construction "is the single largest procurement we will be involved with — anywhere from $120 million to $140 million," Shelton told

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Total costs for the project are expected to exceed $1 billion, he added.

Overhead view of the Giant Magellan Telescope site in mid-March 2019. Excavation for the pier and enclosure foundations is complete. Trenching work for the upgraded water and electrical distribution systems can be seen at the top of the image.

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The GMT will therefore be able to make groundbreaking observations in a number of fields, project team members have said. For example, the megascope will scan the atmospheres of nearby alien planets for possible signs of life, help astronomers understand how the first galaxies formed, and gather data that could shed light on mysterious dark matter and dark energy.

Each primary mirror, by the way, is about 27 feet (8.4 m) wide — so big that these key pieces will have to travel to Chile by boat.

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Related: Report from Chile: Giant Magellan Telescope Groundbreaking

Shelton said he expects the GMT to start observing the heavens in 2026, with just four or five of the primary mirrors installed.

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"As soon as we have the mount, the enclosure, the utilities and the first couple of instruments, there's no reason...
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