Seeing Stars: The big science of building a giant telescope
Thursday, April 25, 2013
News Feature

"We’ll be able to see the beginning of the universe as we know it today," says Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and professor of astronomy -- imaging the radiation signatures from ancient galaxies billions of light years from his hilltop office on Garden Street, near the Radcliffe Quad. Addressing that same frontier, Abraham (Avi) Loeb, Baird professor of science and chair of the astronomy department, characterizes the research as "the scientific version of the story of Genesis." Closer to home, so to speak, where the quest for "exoplanets" orbiting other stars has accelerated since the first discovery in 1995 -- and with it the search for chemical signs of life elsewhere -- Wendy Freedman, chair and director of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, in Pasadena, California, says, "We can now approach it from a scientific standpoint. It’s no longer science fiction."

These scientists are giving voice to the curiosity that propels astronomy today. As they scan space, pursuing research on a vast scale -- from the evolution of elements from the first simple building blocks (hydrogen, helium, and a trace of lithium) to the formation of stars, planets, and galaxies -- they and hundreds of colleagues worldwide are also joined in a terrestrial enterprise: the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), an extraordinary instrument that will enable such discoveries. Patrick McCarthy, the astrophysicist who in 2008 became director of the nonprofit organization designing and building the GMT, says of the telescope and its associated analytical instruments, "This is where hardware meets science" -- on an enormous scale.

Astronomy is the ultimate observational science. Humans have probably always looked skyward, noting the passage and patterns of the sun, moon, and stars. The eye is the essential instrument, and the subject of study is readily available -- overhead. Astronomers cannot manipulate a star in a laboratory, or examine a black hole under a ventilating hood. They observe from afar.