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MIT's optical astronomers will soon have a powerful new tool with which to look deeply into the center of the Milky Way from one of the world's superior observing sites, the top of an oceanside mountain in Chile.
Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau has announced that MIT has joined three other universities and the Carnegie Institution of Washington in a $68 million project to build a pair of 6.5-meter telescopes near the town of La Serena, 200 miles north of Santiago.
MIT has made a commitment of from 8 to10 percent of the cost of what the consortium calls the Magellan Project and will have 8 to 10 percent of the observing time. The first of the new telescopes will be ready to gather what astronomers refer to as "first light" in 1998.
Carnegie, the consortium's lead partner, owns the Las Campanas Observatory and has maintained other telescopes there for many years. It is underwriting 50 percent of the cost of the project.
The other schools involved in the Magellan Project are the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona and Harvard University. The commitments of MIT and Michigan to the project made it possible to build two telescopes rather than one.
"We are pleased to join with these other outstanding institutions in creating a facility that will enable us and our partners to be at the forefront of optical astronomy in the next millennium," Dean Birgeneau said. "I am also happy that, even in a time when sources of research funding are constricting and shifting, MIT is able to commit significant resources to making available to our faculty and students an exciting new research tool."
Physics Professor Claude R. Canizares, director of the Center for Space Research, who is coordinating the MIT link with Magellan and who will represent MIT on the consortium council that will manage the Magellan Project, said joining the consortium "gives MIT the chance to participate in a unique partnership. Of greatest importance is the regular, unfettered observational capability that this will provide our faculty and students to conduct their research. Magellan will merge our special capabilities with the complementary strengths of the premiere private astronomical observatory (Carnegie), our neighbor, the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and our colleagues at Michigan with whom we now share a smaller observatory near Tucson. Combined with our existing leadership position in space astrophysics, this partnership will ensure that MIT maintains its role at the forefront of astronomical research, particularly in the exploding field of cosmology."
Involved with Magellan are students and faculty from the Department of Physics and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. These include Professor Paul L. Schechter of physics, who has played a leading role in linking MIT to the project and who will serve on the Science Working Group that will steer the technical aspects of the Magellan Project; Associate Professor John L. Torny of physics; Professor James L. Elliot of EAPS, director of the George R. Wallace Jr. Astrophysical Observatory, and Associate Professor Richard P. Binzel of EAPS.
Augustus Oemler, the director of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution, said, "We anticipate many decades of discoveries at the frontiers of astronomy using Magellan's superb facilities. We are also looking forward to a very pleasant and fruitful collaboration with our colleagues at the other Magellan institutions in scientific research and the development of new instrumentation." The observatory, at elevation 2,400 meters, is far from city lights, and because it is near the ocean, it is favored by very stable air. Objects near the center of our galaxy can be more closely observed from a site in the southern latitude, and year-round observation of the Magellanic Clouds will be possible.
The Carnegie Institution said that site preparation for both Magellan telescopes has been completed and foundations have been laid on Manqui Ridge at Las Campanas. Construction of the Magellan 1 enclosure and auxiliary buildings is reaching advanced stages. Major components of the telescope mount and the mirror cell are being manufactured at L&F Industries, Huntington Park, CA, and installation will be completed in Chile in 1997. The primary mirror for Magellan 1 was cast at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona, and is ready for grinding and polishing. Inspection of the mirror blank after removal from its oven in early 1995 revealed it to be of excellent quality. The Magellan 1 primary mirror is scheduled to be installed in mid-1998.
The governing body of the Magellan Consortium is the Magellan Council, made up of astronomers appointed by the member institutions in approximate proportion to their shares in the project. Carnegie Institution will preserve at least 50 percent participation, and its director of the Las Campanas Observatory, who reports to the director of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution, will manage the day-to-day operations of the Magellan facilities. Consistent with existing agreements for operation of Las Campanas, 10 percent of future observing time will be available to astronomers at Chilean universities free of charge.
Michigan-which has agreed to fund 10 percent of the capital and operating costs of the two-telescope project-MIT, and Dartmouth College operate two smaller optical telescopes, the W.A. Hiltner telescope and the McGraw-Hill telescope at the Michigan-Dartmouth-MIT observatory on Kitt Peak Mountain in southern Arizona.
MIT entered astronomy soon after World War II, helping to create the physics-based and technology-intensive fields of x-ray and radio astronomy. The later program in ground-based optical astronomy is focused on topics in cosmology, including fundamental questions on the size of the universe and the large-scale distribution of matter. MIT also has active programs in astrophysics theory and solar system astronomy (both from the ground and from space), gravity wave detection, the development of advanced sensors, optics and computation. About 50 astrophysics graduate students provide enthusiasm and fresh ideas. MIT astronomers have often collaborated on scientific projects with colleagues at the other Magellan partner institutions.