Press Release

George P. Mitchell Leads A&M and UT Partnership for Giant Magellan Telescope

By SpaceRef Editor
April 16, 2008
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George P. Mitchell Leads A&M and UT Partnership for Giant Magellan Telescope

Challenges Texans to Support States’ Flagship Universities in Science Quest

HOUSTON, April 16 Though known as fierce rivals in the sporting arena, Texas’ flagship universities are uniting in a goal as big as the Universe thanks to a cosmic initiative by Houston businessman and philanthropist George P. Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp.

Spurred by Mitchell’s $3.25 million gift to his alma mater of Texas A&M University, The University of Texas at Austin has provided matching, thereby making Aggies and Longhorns partners in the $550 million Giant Magellan Telescope. The GMT will be the world’s largest telescope — one so powerful that it is expected to give perhaps the first definitive answer as to whether or not there is life beyond Earth. Set to begin science operation in northern Chile in 2017, the GMT will enable such breakthroughs as gaining visual images of distant planets, detecting the basis of extra-solar life and peering into the very formation of the Universe.

To help generate statewide support for this effort, presidents from each university joined George P. Mitchell, a 1940 distinguished petroleum engineering graduate of Texas A&M, for a presentation marking the two universities’ involvement in the eight-member GMT Consortium and the unprecedented opportunity it represents, both for Texas and the world.

“This is an extraordinarily exciting project that’s going to put Texas on the map in terms of astronomy,” said Dr. Wendy Freedman, director of Carnegie Observatories for the Carnegie Institution and director of the GMT Consortium. “It’s unusual that these two universities are working together to make this happen, but this is an unusual project.”

Besides Carnegie, Texas A&M and The University of Texas at Austin, the consortium includes Harvard University, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the University of Arizona, Australian National University and Australia Astronomy Limited.

More partners are sought, and South Korea has indicated it will join. NASA does not involve itself in ground-based space projects, although the GMT will produce images up to 10 times sharper than those of the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

Today’s largest telescopes, including The University of Texas at Austin’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory in West Texas, have mirrors with effective diameters of up to 10 meters. Dr. David L. Lambert, director of the McDonald Observatory and holder of the Isabel McCutcheon Harte Centennial Chair, says the GMT will collect five times more light than the Hobby-Eberly telescope and about 70 times as much light as the Hubble Space Telescope.

“The Hubble has been a very important experiment for NASA, but our ground-based instruments will be even more important,” Mitchell said. “If we could show NASA that the GMT could detect asteroids headed toward Earth early enough to do something about it, maybe NASA might put some money into it, too.”

Freedman also spoke at Friday’s luncheon, along with Texas A&M President Dr. Elsa A. Murano, The University of Texas at Austin’s President William Powers Jr. and directors of their respective astronomy programs.

“We are entering a new era in the history of humanity, where we find ourselves living in a large but finite Universe,” said Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, director of Texas A&M’s astronomy program. “This telescope will allow us to see to the other side of the Universe, right up to its edge. Its power will be almost beyond comprehension.”

But before that power is unleashed, GMT consortium leaders say it’s time for the project’s next phase.

“We would not be where we are without Mr. Mitchell’s early help,” Freedman said. “But after working on designs for several years, we now reach the project’s next phase of detailed design and raising funds for construction. And we hope to galvanize Texas to become a full participant.”

The GMT Consortium’s sense of urgency comes from two rival big-telescope projects, one planned by Cal Tech and the University of California System, the other by the same 13-nation European consortium which wound up with the first Superconducting Super Collider, after such a project was derailed in Texas.

All three telescopes are expected to near completion in about 10 years, or about the same time the orbiting Hubble Telescope is expected to deteriorate to the point of being out of service, even with one possible shuttle repair mission envisioned.

“I challenge our top two universities — and all Texans — to meet the tough competition California offers in order to be at the center of high-energy physics,” Mitchell said. “Texas had better wake up. California is always ahead of us in this. With the GMT, we hope to inspire Texans to come together in this challenge.”

Although the two rival telescopes will be bigger, Freedman says, “ours will be more efficient and thus more cost-effective. Also, no other big telescope will have the imaging capability to allow visually identifying other planets.” The GMT also will be able to make spectrum analyses of such planets, to detect atmospheric conditions.

“Imagine the excitement if the GMT proves there is life on other planets,” said Texas A&M’s Suntzeff. “It will also give us a better understanding of how the Universe originated and how it’s evolving to this day.”

Indeed, Freedman says the telescope will unlock secrets of “the very early Universe. The first stars, galaxies and black holes that formed we will see directly, via light that dates back to just a billion years after the ‘Big Bang’ created the Universe 13.7 billion years ago. The GMT will have that kind of sensitivity and resolution. It will be like a time machine.”

Mitchell said the telescope “also should help us understand dark energy and dark matter. That’s 96 percent of the Universe, and we don’t understand what it’s all about.”

He believes it also will keep American scientists from going elsewhere, such as Europe.

“We’ve got to step up to this challenge,” Mitchell said. “It’s a national initiative in which Texas can become a leader. And if anyone can get it done in Texas, then Texas A&M and The University of Texas at Austin are our best chance. They can help America to stay in the race and keep our scientists from going elsewhere.”

Mitchell said some scientists already are coming to Texas A&M on the strength of the prospect of getting time on the GMT when it starts operations.

“If we can raise $55 million between the two universities, they’d share 10 percent of the time on the telescope,” he said. “But I think we need 15 percent. And I know The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M donors could get it done.”

Mitchell credits former Texas A&M President Robert Gates, now Secretary of Defense, for sharing his vision of greatly expanding the university’s facilities and scientific talent. “Gates’ objectives are happening,” he said.

To further support the project, Mitchell plans to give Texas A&M another $1.5 million per year for five years, providing the university matches it.

Yet even with its advantages, the GMT Consortium “needs to get moving,” Freedman said. “We want to skim the cream of the science that’s to be done by next-generation telescopes. Only one group will get to do the first science with them. We have the opportunity to be first, and we are ready to go.”

GMT spin-offs into industry, she said, could include universities contracting with industry to build instruments and detectors to take advantage of the telescope’s increased resolution.

Mitchell has been aiming for the stars since his teens, when he even tried building his own telescope. Channeling his scientific mind into finding oil where others couldn’t, in 1940 he became a distinguished petroleum engineering graduate of Texas A&M, then began earning a fortune in oil and real estate.

Yet Mitchell never abandoned his passion for knowledge of the Universe, which is why he and his wife, Cynthia, have been among the biggest private financial backers in A&M’s history — and by far the biggest for Texas A&M Physics.

United by their shared disappointment over failure of the proposed Texas Superconducting Super Collider, Mitchell, Gates and renowned Cambridge University theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking spearheaded a campaign to launch Texas A&M’s Department of Physics into high orbit.

Mitchell has provided more than $51 million in support of Texas A&M Physics. That includes committing $35 million to help fund buildings for both the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy named in Mitchell’s honor at Hawking’s suggestion — and the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building, and still more funds to create 10 academic chairs — including the Stephen Hawking Chair in Fundamental Physics — and two professorships.

The Mitchells also have made many gifts to The University of Texas at Austin, including support for its Elementary Charter School and unrestricted funds and faculty support for the School of Architecture and the College of Engineering.

Now the GMT is his focus, with both universities in mind.

“If we’re losing this country’s intellectual knowledge, then this telescope could help turn that tide,” he said.

“Texans, wake up. If you think the Hubble has been very important to cosmology, as I do, then you know we need this new telescope. And if you want to be competitive with California and Europe, then let’s get going. Now is the time. The future is here.” ‘

SpaceRef staff editor.