Skyword: August 2015

August 2015

Director’s Message

Director’s Message

Taft Armandroff

Taft Armandroff, Director

Frank and Susan Bash Endowed Chair

It is a pleasure to welcome you to our SkyWord newsletter for the friends and supporters of McDonald Observatory. With SkyWord, McDonald Observatory is consolidating our news updates to various groups of friends of the Observatory into a single medium.

With this unified approach, we hope to keep you better informed about McDonald Observatory, the fascinating discoveries being made in astronomy, and our mission to share astronomy with the public.

One of the most exciting projects underway at McDonald Observatory is the enhancement and rejuvenation of our Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET). The largest telescope at McDonald, and one of the largest in the world, the HET is being upgraded to have a much wider field of view and feature greatly enhanced instrumentation. We are confident that these enhancements will enable the HET to produce new, unique scientific results. One of the critical elements in this renaissance of HET is the advanced optical system that enables its larger field of view: the Wide-Field Corrector. One of the research articles in this issue of SkyWord describes this amazing piece of optics, and how it was produced and then carefully delivered to McDonald Observatory. The completion of the Wide-Field Corrector represents one very important step toward the HET reappearing as a fully functional cutting-edge astronomical tool. We will keep you informed via SkyWord as the HET comes back on line and produces new science.

McDonald Observatory is committed to providing cutting-edge research tools to our astronomy user community. As telescopes grow more and more complex and expensive, they become too economically and technically challenging for a single institution to fund. A number of enlightened institutions, including The University of Texas at Austin and its McDonald Observatory, have founded the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) Organization to develop and operate what will be the world’s most powerful telescope when it comes on line in 2021. The GMT will feature seven 8.4-meter primary mirror segments working together to greatly exceed the collecting area of the largest telescopes available today. With an advanced adaptive optics system, the GMT will resolve spatial details 10 times finer than the Hubble Space Telescope.

We are pleased to report that UT Austin and its 10 partner institutions have finalized the legal and commitment agreements to enable the GMT to move forward. Thus, the project has entered the construction phase, and we are on the path toward the first revolutionary scientific data from the GMT. As with the HET, look for more information in this and future issues of SkyWord.

Sharing the news of the Observatory is something that I hope will further connect you with our work and mission. Because your participation matters so much, our editorial team would appreciate any feedback or suggestions that you may have for this and future issues. What are your reactions to the first issue of SkyWord? Are there topics related to McDonald Observatory and Texas astronomy that you believe we should include in future issues? Please write us at, and thanks so much for reading.


University of Texas at Austin, International Partners Approve Start of Construction for Giant Magellan Telescope

AUSTIN — The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) has announced a major milestone recently with 11 international partners including The University of Texas at Austin unanimously approving its construction, securing the future of the project with more than $500 million to begin work on the world’s most powerful optical telescope. The decision initiates final design and fabrication of the GMT, which is poised to become the largest optical telescope in existence.

“We are excited to work with 10 other world-class partners to develop a telescope that will address the most important issues in astronomy today,” said Dean of Natural Sciences Dr. Linda Hicke. A global scientific collaboration, the GMT has institutional partners in Australia, Brazil, Korea, the United States, and in host nation Chile.

GMT is integral to the future of astronomy at The University of Texas at Austin. “The Giant Magellan Telescope will transform our research and education programs in astronomy, and will complement our facilities at McDonald Observatory in West Texas,” said McDonald Observatory Director Dr. Taft Armandroff.

The 25-meter telescope aims to be the first of the new generation of extremely large telescopes, with more than six times the collecting area of the current largest optical telescopes in existence. The GMT will enable astronomers to look deeper into space and further back in time than ever before, producing images up to 10 times sharper than those produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. It is expected to see first light in 2021 and be fully operational by 2024.

A ground-based telescope planned for construction at the Las Campanas Observatory in northern Chile, the GMT will give scientists a powerful new tool to better understand how stars and galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang, to measure the masses of black holes billions of light years from Earth, and to discover planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It will reveal the faintest objects ever seen in space, including extremely distant and ancient galaxies, whose light has been travelling to Earth since shortly after the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago.

“The decision by our partner institutions and the Board of Directors to start construction is a crucial milestone on our journey to making these amazing discoveries through state-of-the-art science, technology, and engineering,” said Dr. Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago, former chair of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) Board of Directors.

The construction approval means work will begin on the telescope’s core structure and the scientific instruments that lie at the heart of the $1 billion project.

“The University of Texas at Austin plans to help develop the  telescope’s high-technology instrumentation,” Armandroff said.

Early preparation for construction has included groundwork at the mountain-top site at Las Campanas and various stages of fabrication of four of the telescope’s seven 8.4-meter (27-foot) primary mirror segments.

Each mirror segment weighs 17 tons and takes one year to cast and cool, followed by more than three years of surface generation and meticulous polishing at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab of the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. Taken together, the total light-collecting area of the mirrors will be 25.4-meters (82 feet).

The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO) manages the GMT project on behalf of its international partners: Astronomy Australia Ltd., The Australian National University, Carnegie Institution for Science, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo, Harvard University, Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona, the University of Chicago, and The University of Texas at Austin. Funding for the project comes from the partner institutions, governments, and private donors.

Connect with the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization on social media:,,, and visit

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Note to Editors: To access a video news package including interviews with GMTO partners and b-roll, as well as images and video graphics of the Giant Magellan Telescope, please visit:

Media contacts: 

Rebecca Johnson, Press Officer

McDonald Observatory, The University of Texas at Austin

Davin Malasarn, Dir. of External Affairs
Giant Magellan Telescope Organization

Science contacts:

Dr. Taft Armandroff, Director

McDonald Observatory, The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Wendy Freedman, Chair, Board of Directors
Giant Magellan Telescope Organization

‘Crown Jewels’ Installed on Hobby-Eberly Telescope

McDonald Observatory’s Kathryn Busby cleans the Wide-Field Corrector with CO2 “snow” upon its arrival from Arizona. (Photo by: Jerry Martin Photography)

By Damond Benningfield

The “crown jewels” of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) upgrade — a set of four mirrors designed to sharpen the view to pinpoint precision — have been installed on the telescope. They soon will allow scientists to take their first views of the night sky with the refurbished telescope.

Together, the mirrors form the Wide-Field Corrector. The assembly sits at the top of the telescope, where it will capture light reflected from the primary mirror. Because of the mirror’s spherical surface, the image it produces is spread across a wide area. The corrector’s mirrors were carefully shaped to correct the view, focusing it to an area roughly the width of a human hair.

The mirrors also increase the telescope’s field of view, and they will allow scientists to use the 10 meters (33 feet) of the HET’s primary mirror. Originally, they could use no more than 9.2 meters during any single observation.

The corrector was built by the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences in Tucson — a process that took five years. Engineers tested it on a sophisticated rig that used laser light, holograms, and computer algorithms to simulate the HET’s primary mirror.

Transporting the corrector from Tucson to McDonald Observatory — a trip of more than 500 miles — required careful planning and preparation as well. The corrector was sealed against dust and humidity and wrapped inside a thermal blanket to keep its temperature constant during the long drive, mounted atop shock-absorbing springs, and housed inside a custom-built shipping container. The package left Tucson on the evening of May 27, escorted by HET personnel and a University of Texas at Austin police car.

Final testing will start when the refurbished HET takes its first look at a star. After that, the scientific instruments will be tested and verified, allowing the HET to return to service.

Education & Outreach

Astronomy Outreach Program Enters the Stratosphere

UT Astronomer Keely Finkelstein, along with a handful of teachers affiliated with the EXES Teacher Associate Program, boarded NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) in the spring for a once-in-a-lifetime trip which had them performing real astronomical observations. More »


McDonald Observatory’s Andrew Mann Wins Prestigious Hubble Fellowship

AUSTIN — Astronomer Andrew Mann of The University of Texas at Austin has been awarded a Hubble Fellowship from NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute, science center for the Hubble Space Telescope.

“It is an honor to receive the Hubble Fellowship, and I look forward to continuing my research at UT Austin,” Mann said.

The Hubble Fellowship Program includes all research relevant to present and future missions relating to NASA’s Cosmic Origins program. These missions currently include the Herschel Space Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Seventeen Hubble Fellows were chosen this year.

Mann studies planets outside our solar system, including both their demographics (how often they occur and around what types of stars) and their fundamental properties like size, chemical content, and more. He plans to use his fellowship to continue this work at McDonald Observatory.

“I'm particularly excited to continue working with the IGRINS instrument on the Harlan J. Smith Telescope to better characterize red dwarf stars, especially those with detected planets,” Mann said.

“I congratulate Andrew Mann on winning one of the most competitive fellowships in astronomy to continue his work at McDonald," said Taft Armandroff, the observatory’s director.

Mann received his PhD in 2013 from the University of Hawaii, and for the past two years has held the Harlan J. Smith Post-doctoral Fellowship at McDonald Observatory.

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Science contacts:

Dr. Andrew Mann
McDonald Observatory
The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Robert Williams
Space Telescope Science Institute

Featured Image

Featured Image

McDonald Observatory draws visitors from throughout Texas and the U.S. to programs including the nighttime Star Party, where the Milky Way can be seen brightly contrasted against the dark night sky. In summer months, this includes welcoming participants to the multi-day, on-site Professional-Development Teacher Workshops and Boy Scouts troops as part of the annual Scout Night program. In recent years, visitorship has been on the rise; and 86,000 visitors are forecasted to attend McDonald Observatory’s public programs by year’s end. (Photo by: Ethan Tweedie Photography)

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