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Harvard helps fund most powerful telescope ever built

A rendering shows the planned Giant Magellan Telescope. GMTO Corporation

On a mountaintop in the Chilean Andes on Wednesday, scientists from across the world gathered to celebrate the ground-breaking for the Giant Magellan Telescope, the most powerful instrument of its kind to ever be built.

Funded by Harvard University and partners from the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Korea, the telescope could help scientists answer fundamental questions in cosmology, astrophysics, and the study of planets in other solar systems, organizers say.

The project, which will cost just over $1 billion, is poised to begin operation in 2021.

The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization says it has already raised more than $500 million.

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“The idea of the next large, really ambitious telescope probably goes back 20 years,” said David Charbonneau, a professor at Harvard University and researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Charbonneau co-authored a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday about the discovery of the closest-ever-found Earth-sized exoplanet, or a planet that orbits a star other than our Sun.

Because of its proximity, researchers have been able to measure the planet’s mass, radius, and density, three indicators of its similarities and differences from Earth.

The new telescope,will be especially adept at examining the molecules within the atmosphere of distant planets, which Charbonneau said will help his team develop its search for signs of life elsewhere.

“One of the greatest questions in all of science is whether or not we are alone in the universe, whether there’s life outside the solar system,” he said. “The GMT is the first observatory that is actually big enough to do that.”

Charbonneau said the Giant Magellan’s size and strength will be a “game-changer” for astronomers, especially for the researchers on his own team who have never had a telescope strong enough to study the atmosphere of an Earth-sized exoplanet.

“For me, the GMT is a bit like a portal, a bit like a gateway. We’d like to go to those other earth-like planets, but we’ll never be able to do that. The distances are just much too large,” he said. “The telescope is the way to go there remotely.”

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.