The University of Texas System Board of Regents  Friday authorized UT Austin  to spend $50 million in research reserves to participate in building the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be the world’s largest telescope when it’s completed in 2020. The project will give students, researchers and faculty the opportunity to make groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy.
The Giant Magellan Telescope , or GMT, will be built in Chile, in the foothills of the Andes, because the extremely dry climate is optimal for providing the sharpest images.
The telescope’s seven mirrors will comprise about 3,900 square feet, which is about the size of a basketball court. Compared to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT Austin’s McDonald Observatory  in west Texas, the GMT will have six times the light-gathering power and the ability to produce images 10 times sharper.
The total cost of the telescope is expected to be about $1.05 billion. UT Austin has set a goal to contribute 10 percent of the construction costs, or roughly $100 million.
In addition to UT Austin, founding partners in the telescope project include Astronomy Australia Ltd., the Australian National University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago.
“Being a charter investor in this remarkable scientific tool will benefit our students, our faculty and the whole university,” UT Austin President Bill Powers said. “Not only will we be helping to answer the most basic questions about our universe, but our involvement will underscore our status as a top world university. This is the leading edge of science, and it is where Texas must be.”
UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., said UT Austin will be one of few U.S. universities with access to the world’s largest telescope.
“This will help position UT Austin to become the top public research university in the country,” Cigarroa said. “In the 1500s, Ferdinand Magellan organized the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe. Now, UT Austin and the Giant Magellan Telescope project are continuing that journey to better understand the world we live in.”
For example, the Giant Magellan Telescope will be able to take images of previously undiscovered planets and determine if they are habitable, said David Lambert, director of the McDonald Observatory.
“If we succeed, I think the discovery of a series of habitable planets would be a landmark in human history,” he said.
UT Austin’s financial contribution guarantees annual access to the telescope. The university is hoping to raise an additional $50 million through fundraising.
"Not only does this funding put us over half of the way toward our goal, it shows the university's vital commitment to the astronomy program,” Lambert said. “It also sends a strong signal to the young researchers and faculty that we'd like to recruit over the next few years that the University of Texas at Austin intends to continue being a major player in optical astronomy far into the future."