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Ex-UA pres Shelton to focus on building world's largest telescope

The $1 billion Giant Magellan Telescope project in Chile, at 24.5 meters across, will be the world's largest astronomical telescope when it's completed in a decade. Heading up the development will be former University of Arizona President Robert Shelton.

Shelton, a physicist as well as academic leader, will take over the multi-national project next month. The UA has a large stake in the telescope, working with a consortium of universities and research institutions in the U.S., Australia, Brazil and Korea.

"The GMT will be an incredible asset to the future of scientific discovery and our understanding of the universe," said Shelton.  It "will help answer questions about our fundamental humanity, and why we're here on Earth, and what we're going to do in our time to make the earth and the world around us better."

"This observatory will have resolving power like nothing before — greater than the Hubble Space Telescope, greater than any other ground-based observatory," he said. "This allows us to look back in time, because the farther you can look into the recesses of the universe, the farther you can look back in time. And that goes into some fundamental questions about the origin of the universe, the questions of energy and matter — and that, I think, intrigues all human beings."

Mirrors for the telescope are being polished at the UA's Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab.

Construction of the facility is underway; it is planned to begin operating in 2025.

"The GMT will be a ground-breaking scientific tool for discovery, and I look forward to Robert Shelton's experienced leadership in making it a reality," said Harvard University President Drew Faust.

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The GMT will enable breakthrough science ranging from studies of the first stars and galaxies in the universe to the exploration of planets around other stars. The project is being developed by an international consortium of universities and research institutions in the U.S., Australia, Brazil and Korea. The telescope will be located at the Las Campanas Observatory high in the Andes mountains of northern Chile. Dark skies, a dry climate and smooth airflow make Las Campanas one of the world's premier astronomical observing sites.


Among its peers, which are optimized to narrow their focus far into the distant universe, GMT will stand out with its ability to do just that, using its very high-angular resolution mode. But it also will employ a wide-field mode to examine relatively large patches of sky, explained Patrick McCarthy, who has served as GMTO's interim president. 

"That's really important when you look back at the early universe and want to understand how galaxies form and evolve," McCarthy said. "In order to build proper samples that are statistically valid, having a larger patch of sky to look at is an advantage."

Shelton led the UA from 2006 to 2011. Since then, he led the foundation that runs the Fiesta Bowl through its post-scandal years, and been the president of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement since 2014.

In addition to the UA, partners in the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization are Astronomy Australia Ltd., The Australian National University, Carnegie Institution for Science, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP), Harvard University, Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, The University of Texas at Austin and University of Chicago.

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A rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope.