UF officials help inaugurate world's largest telescope

Published: July 24 2009

Category:Appointments, InsideUF, Top Stories

LA PALMA, Canary Islands — Telescopes are tools for observation. But on Friday, one was the star.

More than 500 astronomers, government officials and journalists from three continents — including the King and Queen of Spain — gathered on this tiny island to inaugurate the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the world’s largest telescope.

Seven astronomers and officials from the University of Florida, as well as several UF alumni and supporters, were among the guests. UF invested $5 million in the $180 million in the telescope project, which was launched in 2000. The university, which owns a 5 percent share, is the only U.S. institution with part ownership of the telescope known to astronomers as the “GTC.”

“This partnership offers unparalleled research and educational opportunities for our faculty and students in an international setting that complements the international mission of our university,” UF Provost Joe Glover told the audience in an outdoor ceremony held adjacent to the telescope’s mammoth silver dome.

The ceremony was the focal point of a day that began at 7:40 a.m., when guests departed hotels near the island’s main city, Santa Cruz de La Palma, in chartered buses flanked by police escorts for a 90-minute-plus journey up the Roque de los Muchachos.

There are no less than 17 telescopes atop La Palma, one of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias’ two observatories known collectively as the European Northern Observatory. Together with Chile and Hawaii, the Canary Islands are considered the best on the planet for astronomical observations. At about 8,000 feet above sea level, the La Palma site is not as high as those in Chile and Hawaii. It has very little atmospheric disturbance, while its remoteness and low cloud cover minimizes light pollution.

The GTC’s enormous silver dome makes an impression even on this unique landscape of metal and glass behemoths.

Guests disembarked and were ushered inside, where they got a first-hand view of the telescope’s gargantuan red-and-silver superstructure, 10.4-meter primary mirror and smaller secondary mirror. With the floor beneath the telescope slowly and silently rotating the GTC seemed an uncanny combination of brute mechanical giant and Swiss-watch precision.

Officials with the Canary Islands government, Mexico and Spanish King Juan Carlos I all spoke at the inauguration ceremony. Glover, the only U.S. representative and the only person to speak in English, emphasized that UF views the GTC as an opportunity for international collaboration in research and education — especially with respect to building the complex astronomical instruments that interpret the light the giant mirror collects.

“The design and construction of astronomical instrumentation is one of Florida’s hallmarks, and we pledge our expertise in collaboration with our colleagues from Spain and Mexico to ensure that the scientific life of the GTC is long and fruitful,” he said.

A UF-built instrument, CanariCam, is already at the GTC awaiting installation expected in 2010. UF astronomy professor Charles Telesco’s initial award to build the heat-sensing imager for the telescope was the spark that led to UF’s participation in the GTC, astronomy department Chairman Stan Dermott said in an earlier interview.

He said the timing was auspicious: UF was seeking to gain a leading role in astronomy through developing expertise in astronomical instrumentation — just as Spain sought to enter the top echelons of astronomy through construction of the record-breaking GTC.

In astronomy, access to the best images from the best telescopes and instruments makes all the difference — it’s impossible to do cutting-edge research without such access, Dermott said. Yet time on the world’s largest telescopes is extremely expensive. UF astronomers get 20 nights per year as a result of the university’s 5 percent ownership of the GTC — but CanariCam will add an additional 35 nights.

Tom Walsh, UF’s senior director of sponsored research, negotiated the finer points of the GTC contract with Spain. He was in La Palma on Friday for the inauguration and subsequent scientific meetings — along with Dermott, Telesco and astronomy professor Rafael Guzman, who will succeed Dermott as chairman this fall

All were thrilled to be present for the completion of a decade-long project, but also were looking forward to the work ahead.

“You can never say that we have a telescope. The telescope is only as good as the instruments behind it,” Dermott said. “We have to work continually to make sure the whole setup — the telescope plus the instruments — remains cutting edge. So we have been given a challenge, but it is the sort of challenge that stretches our faculty and engineers to achieve more than what we did before.”


Aaron Hoover

Category:Appointments, InsideUF, Top Stories