Former University of Arizona President Robert Shelton has been selected president of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, which is building the world’s largest telescope with seven 8.4-meter (27 feet) mirrors from the UA’s mirror lab.
The $1 billion-dollar telescope, under construction on a mountaintop in Chile, will look farther back in time, at a higher resolution, than any telescope in operation, said Shelton in a telephone interview Monday.
“I’m coming into a highly functioning organization with strong leadership and a staff of about 80 right now. My job is to work with this leadership and the partners to raise money that we need to complete the construction, to get new partners and to tell the world about what we’re doing,” Shelton said.
Partners in the project include institutions, governments and universities in Korea, Australia and Brazil, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Texas, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the UA.
Patrick McCarthy, the organization’s interim president, said the project has about half the money it needs to complete the $1-billion project.
It expects to have the observatory built and four of the mirrors installed at the Carnegie Observatories’ Las Campanas site for “engineering first light” by 2023.
Under the current schedule, the remaining mirrors will be in place by 2025, McCarthy said.
The telescope is expected to have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope and be capable of imaging early galaxies and exoplanets in other solar systems.
It is one of three giant next-generation telescopes in development. The European Extremely Large Telescope is aiming for completion by 2024. Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the island of Hawaii has been halted, at least temporarily, by legal objections from Native Hawaiians.
Adding partners and finding philanthropists willing to join the effort to complete the telescope will be a big part of his job, said Shelton.
“There are trillions of dollars out there and it’s a matter of convincing people to put them into this kind of endeavor,” he said.
Buell Jannuzi, director of the UA’s Steward Observatory and a member of the GMTO board, said Shelton was the strongest of several strong candidates who applied for the job.
Jannuzi said Shelton has experience working with coalitions that built large telescopes, beginning with his involvement in the SOAR Telescope, while he was provost at the University of North Carolina.
At the UA, he had roles in developing both the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona and the GMT mirrors, Jannuzi said. At Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, Shelton is on the board of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.
“It’s hard to find someone who is as knowledgeable and well-connected in both the astronomical enterprise in our country and the demands on research institutions. He’s a physicist and he understands the partners that are building GMT,” Jannuzi said.
Shelton was UA president from 2006 to 2011. He left to head the Arizona Sports Foundation, the group that puts on the Fiesta Bowl.
He described that job Monday as a “fun two-year sabbatical.”
Shelton has headed Research Corporation for Science Advancement in Tucson since March 2014.
In a news release Monday, the president of that organization’s board, Elizabeth McCormack, praised Shelton’s “collegial style and his commitment to excellence in all that he does.”
Research Corporation, which supports and funds scientific research and education, will conduct a national search to replace Shelton, whose resignation is effective Feb. 20.
Shelton said the GMT post is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have some influence on an observatory that will certainly be producing great science long after I’ve ridden into the sunset.”