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MIT contributes component to Magellan telescopes

MIT researchers are part of a five-university partnership that has been designing and constructing a unique pair of telescopes since 1993.

One of the twin Magellan telescopes of the Carnegie Observatories of Pasadena, CA saw its first stars on September 15 in Chile. The powerful telescope, which has a 21.3-foot diameter mirror, will help astronomers observe faint objects near the edge of the universe.

The 50-foot-high, 150-ton telescopes will allow studies deemed impossible a few years ago. Each partner of the Magellan project -- the Carnegie Institute of Washington, the University of Arizona, Harvard, the University of Michigan and MIT -- has its own scientific agenda for the new telescopes.

One of the most intriguing new 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 burst supernovae, which occur suddenly and without notice. MagIC is being 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 earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences and of physics and director of the Wallace Astrophysical Observatory in Westford, MA.

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 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.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 4, 2000.

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