David Lambert

Photo courtesy of Todd Mason/Mason Productions 

The Giant Magellan Telescope, designed in part by UT faculty, has passed reviews and is now ready for construction, according to an announcement by the McDonald Observatory last week. Once constructed, it will be the world’s largest visual telescope.

The telescope underwent five separate weeklong reviews over the past 12 months with five panels. The panels reviewed technical aspects, design and cost plans, according to Patrick McCarthy, director of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, commonly known as the GMTO.

“All of the review teams returned very positive results, and the project passed all of our reviews,” McCarthy said. “We have a rigorous program for testing components of the telescope.”

McCarthy said, in addition to serving on the advisory committees and in the board of directors for GMTO, University faculty are contributing to the building of the telescope by designing and eventually constructing one of the instruments to be used on the telescope. 

David Lambert, director of the McDonald Observatory and member of GMTO’s board of directors, said the telescope will be a great benefit to the University’s astronomy department.

“Access to the world’s largest telescope will enable us to attract and attain the very best faculty, the very best graduate students and even the very best
undergraduate students,” Lambert said. “In the United States, we are part of a very small group of universities with access to this telescope.”

According to McCarthy, the telescope will primarily be used to study planets that aren’t easily visible with existing technology, and, particularly, planets that could potentially support life. Lambert also said the telescope will be able to capture images of galaxies that have never before been closely observed.

“Because it’s a large telescope, you can look at very faint things,” Lambert said. “So, we’re looking at the very first stars and galaxies that were formed after the Big Bang … . You can image — very crisply and sharply — nearby stars and identify planets.”

Karl Gebhardt, astronomy professor and associate chair of the University’s astronomy department, said he believes the telescope will be the greatest advancement for astronomy in his lifetime.

“Having UT involved in such an important endeavor is an example of the excellence this university provides,” Gebhardt said. “I look forward to many years of using the GMT, trying to understand the formation of the universe, the long-term fate of the universe, and finding the largest black holes throughout the universe.”

Astronomer Taft Armandroff was announced as the new director of UT’s McDonald Observatory on Monday.

Armandroff will replace current director and astronomy professor David Lambert, who announced his plans in April to retire after serving as director for 10 years. Armandroff, who will be the fourth director of the observatory, will take over as director in June. Armandroff is currently director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale University, Armandroff also worked at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Ariz., for 19 years.

Armandroff said he has two primary missions for his first five years on the job, including keeping the technology and research at the McDonald Observatory on the cutting edge.

“The other area that I’m really interested in, as well as the rest of the astronomy faculty, is to have Texas firmly commit to building an even larger telescope in Chile,” Armandroff said. “It’s called the Giant Magellan Telescope. It will have an effective diameter of almost 24 meters, so that’s a huge increase in the collecting area compared to the biggest telescopes we have today.”

Armandroff said he is looking forward to continuing Lambert’s work on the Hobby-Eberly project, a major experiment to search for dark energy. Upon his retirement, Lambert said he hopes the project will contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy. Armandroff said the natural features of the observatory are similar to those at the Keck Observatory. 

“It’s really, really dark out there, way far away from the cities,” Armandroff said. “You can get these incredible images of the spectra of objects in the night sky.” 

In addition to pursuing research, Armandroff said he is looking forward to working alongside UT students at the observatory.

“I like the idea that [the McDonald Observatory] presents an opportunity for students being involved, whether it’s through a class or a research project or employment,” Armandroff said. “I think we’re a lot stronger of an observatory because of our involvement with the students.”

The observatory, located in Fort Davis, is one of the top astronomy research facilities in the country. According to Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at McDonald, there will be special events offered at the observatory through August 2014 intended to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Johnson said these events would include a variety of guest speakers from across the country with a special focus on new discoveries happening in astronomy.

Although Armandroff said he is looking forward to the transition, he said he will miss the natural beauty of Hawaii. 

“The Summit of Mauna Kea is just an amazing place,” Armandroff said. “Going up there is really magical.”

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is located at the McDonald's Observatory in Fort Davis.

Photo taken by Bill Nowlin Photography.

Photo Credit: McDonald's Observatory | Daily Texan Staff

Astronomer Taft Armandroff was announced as the new director of UT’s McDonald Observatory on Monday.

Armandroff will replace current director and astronomy professor David Lambert, who announced his plans in April to retire after serving as director for 10 years. Armandroff, who will be the fourth director of the observatory, will take over as director in June. Armandroff is currently director of the W.M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A graduate of Wesleyan University and Yale University, Armandroff also worked at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tuscon, Ariz., for 19 years.

Armandroff said he has two primary missions for his first five years on the job, including keeping the technology and research at the McDonald Observatory on the cutting edge.

“The other area that I’m really interested in, as well as the rest of the astronomy faculty, is to have Texas firmly commit to building an even larger telescope in Chile,” Armandroff said. “It’s called the Giant Magellan Telescope. It will have an effective diameter of almost 24 meters, so that’s a huge increase in the collecting area compared to the biggest telescopes we have today.”

Armandroff said he is looking forward to continuing Lambert’s work on the Hobby-Eberly project, a major experiment to search for dark energy. Upon his retirement, Lambert said he hopes the project will contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy. Armandroff said the natural features of the observatory are similar to those at the Keck Observatory. 

“It’s really, really dark out there, way far away from the cities,” Armandroff said. “You can get these incredible images of the spectra of objects in the night sky.” 

In addition to pursuing research, Armandroff said he is looking forward to working alongside UT students at the observatory.

“I like the idea that [the McDonald Observatory] presents an opportunity for students being involved, whether it’s through a class or a research project or employment,” Armandroff said. “I think we’re a lot stronger of an observatory because of our involvement with the students.”

The observatory, located in Fort Davis, is one of the top astronomy research facilities in the country. According to Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at McDonald, there will be special events offered at the observatory through August 2014 intended to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Johnson said these events would include a variety of guest speakers from across the country with a special focus on new discoveries happening in astronomy.

Although Armandroff said he is looking forward to the transition, he said he will miss the natural beauty of Hawaii. 

“The Summit of Mauna Kea is just an amazing place,” Armandroff said. “Going up there is really magical.”

Seventy-five years ago, UT’s McDonald Observatory opened with the mission of studying and promoting astronomy. This year, as part of its anniversary celebrations, the observatory will focus on its history of scientific accomplishments, even as it looks to the future with a search for a new director.

The observatory is offering special events through August 2014 as part of its anniversary celebration. Former observatory director Frank Bash kicked off the year of events with a presentation Saturday night, where he spoke about the observatory’s position at the forefront of scientific exploration. 

“In 1939 McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, north of what is now the Big Bend National Park, was in a remote part of Texas … where the skies are very dark,” Bash said. “It was the frontier. Today the skies are still very dark, and McDonald is still remote. But I picture McDonald at a different kind of frontier today. It’s at the border that separates the surface of the earth from the sky — the frontier that leads into the universe.”

Rebecca Johnson, publications editor at the observatory, said the McDonald researchers are currently focused on the study of dark energy, a form of energy that is believed to be causing the universe to expand rapidly.

“We know the universe is expanding, but we don’t know why,” she said.

Johnson said the observatory is working to renovate its Hobby-Eberly telescope to make it capable of examining more than one million galaxies for the purpose of obtaining information about dark energy.

While the dark energy experiment is moving forward, the observatory is also in the process of looking for a new director, as the current director David Lambert is preparing to retire by August 2014.

“I’ve been the director for 10 years,” Lambert said. “Next year I’ll be the same age as the observatory.”

Lambert said the search for his replacement is ongoing.

During Lambert’s time as director, the observatory discovered the most powerful supernova ever recorded and began upgrading its telescopes to make them usable for dark energy research.

“In my own small way, I’ve helped bring about the [Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment],” he said.

Johnson said the anniversary celebrations will focus on the new discoveries happening in astronomy with a speaker series featuring astronomers across the country. The observatory is also celebrating the past with several news pages on its website including a timeline of accomplishments and an interactive blog for people to share stories of experiences they have had at the observatory.

He first developed an interest in astronomy as a high school junior in Kent, England. He joined the UT Faculty in 1969. Now, after 10 years as director of UT’s McDonald Observatory, David Lambert is planning to retire. 

“When I step down, I shall be 75, and that sounds old enough to let someone younger have a shot,” Lambert said. “It will be nice to get fresh blood into the system.”

Lambert, who is also an astronomy professor, will step down by August 2014. He said he has not yet decided if he will continue to teach. Astronomy professor Chris Sneden is chairing the search committee to find a new director — he said the committee has already compiled a shortlist which includes candidates who already work at UT. 

“The ideal director has to lead a major research enterprise and hopefully improve it through the years, but the director has got to be more than a good scientist,” Sneden said. “The director must be a person who is able to work with people, and share a vision for how the observatory will prosper in the future.” 

Lambert also emphasized the leadership aspect of the director role and said it was one aspect of the job that he had not anticipated. 

“I think I didn’t understand how interesting and complex dealing with an organization this size would be, especially in terms of personalities,” Lambert said. “People come in all different flavors, and that presents all different kinds of challenges.” 

Lambert said his proudest accomplishments as director include his work securing funding for the Hobby-Eberly Dark Energy Experiment, which the Observatory hopes to begin next year. 

Dark energy, a term used to represent the unknown force causing the universe to expand faster than scientists predicted it would expand in the 1990s, is not yet understood in the scientific community. 

“Normally, when something explodes, it eventually slows down, but the universe sped up again,” chemistry senior Pablo Alvarez said. “It’s like a car running when we don’t know what’s fueling it.” 

“Even astronomers and physicists don’t know what dark energy is,” biology junior Nicole Vojnovich said. “We can’t calculate it definitively.”

The Hobby-Eberly project, the first major experiment to search for dark energy, will use the McDonald Observatory’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope to collect data on at least 1 million galaxies over 9 billion light-years away, creating a map of the universe larger than anything that exists in the world today. The map will allow astronomers to chart the growth of the universe through different periods in history. Lambert said he hopes the project will help contribute to the world’s understanding of dark energy.

“My hope is that we will carry out the observations for the Dark Energy Experiment, and really make a very, very serious contribution to understanding what dark energy is,” Lambert said. 

Lambert, who came to UT almost 45 years ago in order to use the McDonald Observatory’s telescopes, said he appreciates the full-circle nature of his work. 

“I’ve had great fun using the telescopes at McDonald – basically made my career using them,” Lambert said. “It’s fun to continue to improve the facilities and enlarge them in such a way that the next generation of young people can make their own careers here.” 

Though he is ready to retire, Lambert said he will look back fondly on his years as director. 

“I’ve enjoyed it,” Lambert said, laughing. “I hope I’ve contributed a little.”