The Australian National University will help build the world’s most powerful telescope after signing a Memorandum of Understanding on the weekend to construct the giant telescope with an international consortium of research organisations.

The Giant Magellan Telescope, or GMT, is in the preliminary planning stage and is likely to be one of the first of a small number of next generation Extremely Large Telescopes (ELTs) due to come on-line in the next two decades.

The GMT will detect and study planets around other suns, probe the dark matter and dark energy that controls the expansion and development of the cosmos, and unlock the secrets of star and planet formation.

As part of the GMT consortium, ANU joins an elite group of research and teaching institutions in the US to plan the detailed design of the telescope (see, including the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas A&M University.

ANU Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Chubb, said involvement in the project was an important initiative for the University.

“The Giant Magellan is one of several international projects ANU will be conducting with overseas partners to solve some of the biggest questions facing humankind. We’re pleased to be part of this visionary project, which captures the forward strategic plan for the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and that of the ANU more generally,” Professor Chubb said.

Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which is based on Mt Stromlo in Canberra, Professor Penny Sackett, signed the Memorandum of Understanding in Texas over the weekend.

“Stromlo has always been at the forefront of astronomy and its instrumentation. This partnership is a giant step toward the astronomy of the next decade, and will ensure that ANU – and Australia – remains at the cutting edge of scientific research into our universe,” Professor Sackett said.

The telescope’s conceptual design anticipates a moving mass of 1000 metric tonnes and a cylindrical enclosing dome towering 65 metres – about 18 storeys – high.

Based on a superb observing site in northern Chile, the telescope is expected to “see first light” in 2015 and come into routine operation one year later. The first mirror of the huge assembly has already been cast in Tucson, Arizona, and is being prepared for polishing. Over the next three years, the GMT Partnership will engage in an intense detailed design phase in which contracts could flow to Australia before building begins in 2010.

Dr Wendy Freedman, Director of the Observatories at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Chair of the GMT Board warmly welcomed the entry of the ANU into the project. “I’m delighted that the ANU is entering the consortium. Australia is a world-leader in astronomical research and instrumentation, and will bring a great deal to the project. All of us in the GMT consortium are tremendously excited about this partnership with ANU.”

The primary mirror of the Giant Magellan Telescope will be composed of six segments, each 8.4 metres in diameter surrounding a seventh central mirror of the same size. The total light gathering power thus will be nearly seven times that of the international Gemini telescopes, the largest telescopes to which Australian astronomers now have access.

Professor Sackett said this was a giant step for Australia as well as for the ANU. “Nothing would please me more than if our initial membership would prompt other institutions in Australia, or Australia as a nation, to join the partnership. We’ll be working with our colleagues to assist in reaching this goal. Participation in ELT is a cornerstone of Australia’s Decadal Plan for Astronomy, and Australia has a tremendous capacity to add to the GMT consortium and benefit from it.”

The Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics is renowned for its design and manufacture of instruments for adaptive optics capable telescopes and its new Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre, specifically designed for ELT-era technology, will be completed later this year.

Professor Penny Sackett: + 61 2 6125 0266 / Dr Wendy Freedman, Chair, GMT Board: + 1 626 304 0204 / Professor Matthew Colless, Anglo-Australian Observatory: + 61 2 9372 4812 / ANU Media Office: + 61 2 6125 5575 / 0416 249 245 /

IMAGES and VIDEO of the Giant Magellan Telescope available from: