Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Daniel. Daniel Wonders, “Who made the giant telescope?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Daniel!
These are the types of questions that keep astronomers busy, searching the skies for clues that will one day lead to answers. As technology continues to progress, scientists hope to create new tools that will expand their ability to study the ends of the universe.
One of those new tools is currently under construction. The Giant Magellan Telescope will be one of several new groundbreaking telescopes that promise to change forever the way astronomers view the skies.
When it's completed (hopefully by 2025), the Giant Magellan Telescope will sit atop a 22-story building in the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Located in the arid Atacama Desert at an elevation of over 8,500 feet, the telescope will see approximately 300 clear nights each year.
The Giant Magellan Telescope will consist of a total of seven huge mirrors arranged in a configuration that looks like a flower petal. Each of the mirrors measures 27 feet in diameter and weighs about 17 tons.
Together, the mirrors will form a single optical surface 80 feet in diameter with a total collecting area of over 4,000 square feet. This design will give the Giant Magellan Telescope a resolving power 10 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.
Astronomers believe the Giant Magellan Telescope will allow them to capture light coming from the farthest reaches of the universe. They also think it will help them identify the planets that orbit other stars, some of which could support life.
Before any of that can happen, however, the telescope has to be completed. And that means the seven gigantic, ultra-precise mirrors must be manufactured at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
The first of the mirrors took nearly a decade to create. The second is nearing completion after seven years. The scientists making the mirrors hope that the last several mirrors will only take about four years each to finish.
The mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope are some of the most difficult ever manufactured. Not only are they large and heavy, but they must also be shaped with precision and polished to within one-millionth of an inch of perfection.
This is obviously no easy task. The process starts with placing 20 tons of borosilicate glass chunks by hand into a mold shaped like a honeycomb that will then be rotated for three months in a special furnace that reaches temperatures of over 2,100˚ F.
Once the basic shape of the mirror has been obtained, it is then put through a painstaking process of shaping and polishing. The mirror is only finished when its surface has been perfected to within 20 nanometers — the thickness of a single glass molecule!