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MIT delegation helps dedicate Chile telescopes

More than 300 people, including an MIT contingent, traveled to a remote mountaintop in Chile last week for the dedication of two of the most powerful survey instruments ever built: the Baade and the Clay 6.5-meter reflecting telescopes.

MIT is part of a five-university partnership that has been designing and constructing the unique pair of telescopes since 1993. The Carnegie Institution built the twin telescopes at its Las Campanas Observatory for the Magellan Consortium, comprising the Carnegie Institute of Washington, the University of Arizona, Harvard, the University of Michigan and MIT.

Each telescope has a main mirror that measures more than 21 feet in diameter and has a parabolic surface polished to an accuracy of better than one-millionth of an inch.

With the new telescopes, astronomers hope to understand our origins by studying the chemical history of the first stars in our galaxy as well as the first galaxies to form near the edge of the observable universe. They also will search for black holes, investigate fiery galaxy collisions and map the large-scale structure of the universe.

An exhaustive search will be made for the wobbles in the orbits of stars surrounded by planets, crucial for estimating the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe.

"This represents the biggest stride MIT has ever taken in optical astronomy. We look forward to years of examining the southern sky," said Dean of Science Robert J. Silbey. Dean Silbey and his wife, Susan, attended the dedication.

The 50-foot-high, 150-ton telescopes will allow studies deemed impossible a few years ago. Each partner of the Magellan project has its own scientific agenda for the new telescopes. MIT alumnus Neil Pappalardo donated more than $1.3 million over five years toward the Magellan project.

Marc A. Kastner, the Donner Professor of Physics and head of the physics department, said, "We are delighted that, through the generosity of Neil Pappalardo, MIT owns a share of these wonderful new telescopes. Astronomy is one of the most exciting frontiers in physics and the Magellan instruments will allow our faculty and students to take a leading position in it."


One of the most intriguing instruments on the telescopes is aptly named MagIC (Raymond and Beverly Sackler Magellan Instant Camera) and will enable astronomers to take advantage of "targets of opportunity" such as gamma-ray bursts supernovae, which occur suddenly and without notice.

MagIC was built at MIT's Center for Space Research in collaboration with Harvard's Center for Astrophysics. Principal investigator for MagIC is James L. Elliot, professor of EAPS and physics and director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory.

The Magellan mirrors are a radical departure from the conventional solid-glass mirrors used in the past. They are honeycombed on the inside and made out of Pyrex glass that is melted, molded and spun into shape in a specially designed rotating oven.


The Magellan facility is located at the Las Campanas Observatory, where the clear, dark skies of the Chilean Andes will allow a southern hemisphere view of the center of our own galaxy and our nearest neighboring galaxies. The Las Campanas Observatory is the southern extension of Carnegie's historic Mount Wilson Observatory in California.

In addition to Dean Silbey and Professor Kastner, the dedication of the telescopes and facility on December 9 was attended by Provost and Mrs. Robert A. Brown; Claude Canizares, professor and director of the Center for Space Research; Ronald G. Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and head of EAPS; Professor Richard Binzel of EAPS; Paul Schechter, the William A.M. Burden Professor of Astrophysics; Mr. and Mrs. A. Neil Pappalardo (SB 1964) and members of their family; and Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Millard (SB 1973).

"The MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences salutes the dedicated efforts of a talented group of people in the US and Chile, and the remarkable philanthrophy of Neil Pappalardo and others, which has made the Magellan telescopes a reality," Professor Prinn said."They have provided our planetary scientists with a state-of-the-art facility to further our knowledge of our own solar system, and similar systems in our galaxy and beyond."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2000.

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