Astronomers to meet in Miami to plan for world’s largest telescope
Media invited to reception featuring University of Florida president and top astronomers
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Astronomers from Spain, Mexico and the United States will gather in Miami next week to plan for the first observations of the world’s largest telescope – a $160 million behemoth under development for the past six years on Spain’s Canary Islands.
As many as 150 astronomers from the partner institutions in the Gran Telescopio Canarias or GTC – the University of Florida, two universities in Mexico and several Spanish institutions — will meet in Coral Gables starting Tuesday to plan the telescope’s first observations, expected late next year.
The highlight of the weeklong “First Light Science with the GTC” conference will be a reception, to be attended by UF President Bernie Machen, U.S. and Mexican officials and astronomers, Thursday evening at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.
Members of the media are invited to the event, which will feature speeches and presentations by Machen and other dignitaries, as well as leading astronomers. There will also be a detailed scale model of the GTC on display, as well as a live video tour of the telescope on the Canary Islands off Africa’s west coast.
A 5 p.m. lecture on the history of astronomy in Spain and the Americas will precede the cocktail reception, which begins at 6 p.m. Presentations and the guided video tour will follow from 7 to 8 p.m. The Biltmore is at 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When the GTC is completed, the telescope will have a 10.4 meter, or 34.1 foot, primary mirror, the largest mirror of any optical telescope in the world. That will give it unprecedented power to peer into the heavens — the equivalent of the ability to see the edge of a dime from two miles away, said UF astronomy professor Charlie Telesco. That means the telescope will be able to spot both extremely faint objects, such as dim planets orbiting bright stars, and very distant ones, such as galaxies millions of light years away.
Because of the time it takes for light to travel, the most distant objects are also the oldest, and the GTC will be able to peer back to when the 13-billion-year old universe was just 7 percent of its current age, or 900 million years old, Telesco said. That will significantly enhance astronomer’s understanding of the origins of galaxies, stars and planets, he said.
“When we add all the pieces together, we can weave a fabric that can begin to describe the universe,” he said.
The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica in Mexico, as well as the Instituto de Astrofisca de Canarias in Spain, are among the GTC’s other partners. The international element is important because it represents a unique opportunity for Florida to build a top telescope program, said Stan Dermott, professor and chairman of the UF astronomy department.
“A single university like UF does not have the financial resources to build a giant telescope or the complex instruments that go with it on its own,” Dermott said. “We can only participate in world-class astronomy and space science through collaboration.”
Dermott noted that the GTC endeavor represents a renewal of ties between countries with traditions in astronomy. Spain was a leading center of astronomy in the era leading up Columbus. Indeed, Spanish astronomers warned Columbus that his estimate of the distance to India was far too low, a warning that proved correct when he stumbled on America en route, said Steve Eikenberry, a UF astronomer. Meanwhile, indigenous people in pre-Columbian Mexico were finely attuned to astronomical calendars and events, he said.
“The Maya in particular in Mexico had very advanced astronomical science,” Eikenberry said. “They built their cities around astronomical orientations and had accurate calendars.”
He and UF astronomy Professor Rafael Guzman will cover that and other elements of the history of Hispanic astronomy leading up to the GTC in their lecture Thursday prior to the reception. “There are significant historical roots for the GTC project,” Eikenberry said. “Today, Hispanic astronomy is seeing a tremendous upsurge and the University of Florida is very much at the epicenter of a lot of that activity.”
Besides the participants, sponsors of the conference include the National Science Foundation, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Canary Islands Foundation and Schott, the manufacturer of the glass used in the mirror.