GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Thanks in part to its track record in building instruments for advanced telescopes, the University of Florida will become a partner in what will be the world's largest telescope, a $93 million behemoth under construction in Spain's Canary Islands.
As part of an agreement set to be signed Monday, UF will become the first and only university to participate in the Gran Telescopio Canarias, which the Spanish government is building off the west coast of Africa. The agreement follows the Spanish government's award of a major contract to UF astronomers to build an infrared camera, called CANARICAM, that will be the first instrument installed on the telescope when it is completed in late 2003.
"We have long-term plans for the training of students and postdoctoral fellows from Spain and for collaboration on the design and construction of future astronomical instruments for large telescopes," said Stan Dermott, chairman of UF's astronomy department.
Participation in the Gran Telescopio Canarias, or GTC for short, is the next logical step for the astronomy department, which already has gained access to the world's existing largest telescopes by making the sensitive instruments needed to gather and interpret observations, Dermott said. Most recently, UF researchers provided the first instrument -- an infrared camera known as OSCIR -- for the Gemini North telescope on Hawaii island, which first became operational this summer. Gemini North and its twin, Gemini South in La Serena, Chile, are the National Science Foundation's flagship astronomy projects.
"The Spaniards sought our collaboration because of our expertise in building instruments," Dermott said.
UF's participation in the GTC project means UF astronomy faculty and students will have exclusive use of the telescope for 12 nights annually, though it will share an additional eight nights with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias. In return, UF will contribute about 5 percent of the cost of the construction of the telescope.
"This project offers a unique opportunity for the University of Florida to participate in a global-economy first," said Win Phillips, UF vice president for research and dean of The Graduate School. "We're making a small investment for an enormous return potential." Although much of the research will occur at the telescope on the island of La Palma, UF officials plan to build a remote observation and control center at the UF campus so students and faculty can access the telescope from Gainesville.
Astronomy students won't be the only ones to benefit. The center also will be capable of linking with remotely operated submarines used by the UF geology department.
"Once we have the control center, we can do whatever we want with it," Dermott said. "We'll take students to the limits of the universe and the depths of the oceans."
The Gran Telescopio Canarias will have as its "eye" 36 hexagonal ceramic glass elements joined together to form a 32.8-foot primary mirror, the largest mirror of any telescope in the world. Coupled with other technical innovations, the mirror will give the telescope superior image quality, higher reliability and greater efficiency than any other optical telescope. As a result, the GTC will be able to "see" the faintest and most distant objects in the universe, from hidden galaxies to newborn planets to distant stars.
Dermott said the telescope's abilities dovetail with the department's primary research thrusts: searching for planets around nearby stars and probing the origins of the universe. "The key science project to drive this telescope is the hunt for planets around other stars," he said. "But it will also be pivotal in looking at the formation and evolution of galaxies at the very beginnings of the universe."
Neil Sullivan, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said UF's partnership with the GTC will further push UF's astronomy program into the upper echelons of the top programs in the nation.
"UF is already recognized as a world leader in infrared instrument development and construction," Sullivan said. "This project with Spain will give our researchers and students a special competitive edge."
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