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Astronomers Preview Giant Magellan Telescope, Discuss Extraterrestrial Life at DRCLAS Event

Above the mailboxes at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, posters depict some of the countries studied in the department.
Above the mailboxes at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, posters depict some of the countries studied in the department. By Owen A. Berger
By Jacob I. Buehler and Emmy M. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

Astronomers from across the globe previewed the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is currently under construction at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Wednesday evening.

The online discussion, titled “Are We Alone in the Universe?”, invited Chilean astronomers and researchers from the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard to discuss the feasibility of identifying extraterrestrial life and how the Giant Magellan Telescope could change current understandings of the universe.

In an introductory video, Harvard astrophysicist Andrew Szentgyorgyi said the telescope will be “an enduring flagship for astronomy, astrophysics, and physical sciences”; Andrés Jordán, a professor at Adolfo Ibáñez University in Chile, described it as a “breakthrough” that would “open a new window into the universe.”

The telescope has been under construction since November 2015 and is scheduled to be operational by 2029. Its seven primary mirrors will each have a diameter of roughly 28 feet.

Marcela Rentería, executive director for the DRCLAS regional office in Chile, explained that the telescope is being built in Chile’s Atacama Desert because of the region’s “outstanding astronomical position and clear weather throughout most of the year.”

Astronomers said they were excited about the Giant Magellan Telescope for its potential to transform the search for extraterrestrial life and expand the scope of astrophysics research.

“We are very excited about, obviously, detecting life in the universe,” Miguel R. Roth, vice president of the Giant Magellan Telescope Corporation, said.

“We’re not going to take pictures of little green men,” he added. “We are going to try to detect biological activity in the atmosphere. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”

Juliana García-Mejía ’17, an Astronomy Ph.D. student at Harvard, said in an interview before the discussion that the telescope will be particularly valuable because it could help identify oxygen, a key biosignature which is hard to detect, in exoplanet atmospheres.

“You need these gigantic ground-based telescopes, such as the GMT, to go after those very special molecules,” she said.

In the discussion, several of the scientists described the value of working on a diverse team toward the common goal of completing the telescope.

“Scientific collaboration is very much like forces in the universe,” Cesar I. Fuentes, an astronomer with the University of Chile, said in an interview before the event. “Having people interact, go to Harvard, come to Chile, interact with different institutions, and get to know the people. The human experience of sharing the quest of finding an answer for one of these problems is something that changes you and enables good things.”

Fuentes emphasized the involvement of individual participants in the project, comparing it to other technological developments, which he said often seem “very removed from people.”

“It is always people that are doing this,” he said. “This exchange of ideas and asking for help from Chilean astronomers and this symbiosis that happens, in this case with scientific collaboration, is always about people and how you interact with them.”

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