Thursday, November 19, 2015

Giant Magellan Telescope Groundbreaking Ceremony

Amanda is GMTO's Communications Specialist. In her spare time she blogs at Perpetually Expat.

By Amanda Kocz

On November 11, 2015, the Groundbreaking Ceremony for the Giant Magellan Telescope took place at Las Campanas Observatory. I co-planned the event, and these are my impressions of the day.  Opinions are my own. (Unless otherwise noted, images below are by Damien Jemison, copyright Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation. Videos are by me.)

We arrived at the GMT site at Las Campanas Observatory at around 4:45pm to a very windy afternoon.  It was already cold, and after a brief look at the view the gusts drove us along the red carpet into the nicely heated marquee where guests were mingling and chatting with old and new friends.
We arrive, nearly blown away...(I'm on the right)

Inside the tent the canvas flapped and the structure shook, adding to the sense of excitement. I stuck close to Dr. Miguel Roth, former Director of the Las Campanas Observatory. He and I had worked together for the past four months to bring this celebration of the start of construction of the GMT to fruition.

Soon after we arrived, VIPs began to be seated in the front rows, and before long everyone had taken their seats.

Minutes later the President of Chile, Ms Michelle Bachelet, was announced, and she was escorted along the aisle to the podium as the audience stood and applauded. The President and three distinguished guests, Dr. Taft Armandroff (Chair of the GMTO Board of Directors), Dr. Ennio Vivaldi (President of the University of Chile), Mr. Michael Hammer (US Ambassador to Chile), were seated on a stage in front of the flags of the project partners.

I took a seat in the back row and began to realize that this event that we’d been planning for months, and had gone over every detail of multiple times, was actually happening, live, right now, in front of me.

Then the introductory video started to play, and the music thundered over the sound of the weather outside.  We were beginning: in more ways than one.

Dr. Roth then opened proceedings, welcoming each dignitary and official, friend and Founder, astronomer and member of the project staff. Then, to the delight of the audience, he invited VIP guest Mario Kreutzberger AKA Don Francisco, TV mega star and host of the long-running Sabado Gigante show, to emcee.  Don Francisco graciously accepted, and over the increasing sound of the wind, announced the first speaker, Dr. Armandroff.

Miguel Roth opens proceedings
Don Francisco emcees
The distinguished guests each gave a passionate speech about the importance of the project to astronomy, and to Chile.

When, at the end, President Bachelet spoke she told the audience, “with this science, there are no limits to the possibilities that are open.”

President Bachelet

Then, the “ringing rock” was unveiled.  The Las Campanas site is named after a special feature of the rocks of the area. Translated as “the bells”, the Las Campanas rocks ring when struck.

President Bachelet struck the ceremonial rock with a gold hammer three times, and invited the three speakers, and several other VIP guests, to do the same.  And with that, the ceremony was complete.

President Bachelet with President of the University of Chile Ennio Vivaldi, Chair of the GMTO Board Taft Armandrof, and GMTO Representative in Chile Miguel Roth

I stood fixed to the spot as people all around me congratulated each other.  Glasses of champagne were distributed and Dr. Armandroff proposed a toast.

As people mingled before dinner, a spontaneous group of current and former GMTO Board members and project staff gathered around the rock for some informal rock-ringing and photos.

Then we made our way to the dining room for dinner. No photos were allowed here as the President of Chile was in attendance.  During the first course, local school children gave a dance performance, and afterwards the President went over and shook each of their hands. The children were so excited to be there, and this gesture by Ms. Bachelet was touching.

Dinner was a buffet set along the sides of the tent, and it soon became apparent that the weather outside was growing increasingly frigid.

During dessert, interim President of the GMT Project, Dr. Patrick McCarthy thanked several people for organizing the event, then invited the three ambassadors present to say some remarks (Ambassador of Australia (Tim Kane), the representative of the Ambassador of Brazil (Maurico Candeloro), and the Ambassador of Korea (Ji Eun Yu)). All spoke in an impressive mixture of Spanish and English.

When the meal was over, we said goodbye to our dinner companions and disbursed onto different buses to the next part of the event.

As we were gathering in the shelter of the tent before boarding, a few of us from the Project couldn’t help but notice the sunset. We stepped outside, braving the wind and cold to see it.  In the clear sky of the Observatory, the colors were unreal. We were speechless, emotional, and all of us realized just how lucky we were to be there.

(Image: Tango360)

We were driven in groups over to the Magellan telescopes, 4 miles away. As our group was the last to depart the tent, when we arrived at the telescopes it was dark and the sky was studded with stars.  The Magellanic Clouds were clearly visible, as was the band of the Milky Way.  It was so bitterly cold that we couldn’t get our eyes dark adapted before we had to head inside to warm up.

Inside the Lodge, Dr. John Mulchaey (current Director of the Carnegie Observatories) and his team had put on an impressive spread of tea, coffee and dessert.  There were several activities where we could learn more about the observatory and lots of staff on hand to offer explanations.

One cup of tea later, I went back outside to look through the small telescopes set up in the parking lot.  One was pointing at the globular cluster 47 Tuc, and the cluster filled the eyepiece with what looked like tiny grains of sparkling sand. In the other telescope, we could see the fuzzy blob of the Orion nebula.

Throughout the rest of the night small groups were taken on a tour of the Baade Magellan control room and dome, getting to see, up close, the 6.5 meter mirror.  The size and perfection of the mirror was staggering, and we were amazed to think that each GMT mirror would be nearly two meters wider than this.

Those in the first groups got the very special chance to look at the Saturn Nebula through an eyepiece on the Clay Magellan. Later on in the night, thanks to the increasing wind, the telescope operators had to close the dome.  

We were the last group so when we finished it was past midnight, and we had a 2.5 hour drive back to La Serena. As we looked out of the windows of the darkened bus, the view of the sky seemed somehow more special, and we fell asleep dreaming of the stars.

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