Credit: “Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation.”

“When astronomy began at Texas A&M, one of the main goals of the astronomy group was to start an instrumentation lab.” Darren DePoy

As deputy director of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy and director of the Charles R. 62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory, astronomer Darren DePoy has helped position Texas A&M University as a leader in astronomical instrumentation and as a major player in some of the world’s biggest projects. For more than a decade, members of the Munnerlyn Lab has been designing and building instruments for telescopes around the world that enable scientific studies by astronomers at Texas A&M and elsewhere. Those projects include

  • first-light instruments for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) under construction in Chile,
  • spectrophotometric calibration systems that enabled the precise photometric measurements produced by the Dark Energy Survey, and
  • new instruments for measuring atmospheres around exoplanets and monitoring the brightness of gravitational wave sources.

“We are fortunate at Texas A&M to have both the excellent students and staff as well as the high-quality lab space required to build such precision instrumentation,” said DePoy, who serves as associate dean for research in the College of Science and is past chair of the Texas A&M Council of Principal Investigators.

“Our team includes undergraduate and graduate students from several science and engineering departments and research scientists and engineers in the instrumentation group.”

"All of us are excited to be part of such groundbreaking projects with the broad potential to help shape the future of astronomy.” Collectively, the Munnerlyn Lab team delivers some of the largest and most complex instrumentation ever built. One of its most impressive and technologically taxing projects to date is a National Science Foundation–funded effort to test some of the most powerful optical and infrared technologies ever engineered as the underpinning of the GMT. The project is bolstered by Texas A&M–built actuators that will support the telescope’s massive 16.5-ton primary mirror and keep it precisely aligned.

We are working on a key element of that system in the Munnerlyn Lab—hundreds of pneumatic pistons that hold up the primary mirror and help keep it in the correct figure. The curvature has to be precise to roughly a one-quarter wavelength of light. We have dozens of students working on building and testing these pistons, also known as actuators.” DePoy said.

Munnerlyn Lab researchers have been working with the GMT engineering group to develop, assemble, and test procedures for each air cylinder as well as to integrate them into either single- or triple-actuator castings. Once completed, all the actuators are shipped to the University of Arizona to be installed in the primary mirror test cell. Simultaneously, the Munnerlyn Lab team is working on a new instrument that should allow them to analyze the atmospheres of other planets, helping to fulfill one of the GMT’s primary scientific goals—detecting exoplanets. Those exoplanets are hard to image directly because they are so far away and are often obscured by the bright light of the stars they orbit. In addition, the Munnerlyn Lab team is building a new camera for the Transient Optical Robotic Observatory of the South (TOROS) telescope—a joint project of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas A&M, and the University of Córdoba in Argentina—which recorded its first images in April. The camera, also funded by an NSF grant, is designed to help identify and measure the electromagnetic signals from gravitational wave sources. Regardless of specifications, scale, or scope, DePoy says he sees the overall objective across all projects as universal. “When astronomy began at Texas A&M, one of the main goals of the astronomy group was to start an instrumentation lab,” he said. “Ultimately, what we’re working on are some of the largest questions in all of astronomy today.”

Learn more about the

Credit: “Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation.”

Watch the animated concept of the GMT.

Credit: “Giant Magellan Telescope – GMTO Corporation.”

Watch a video discussing the mirror-making process in the GMT.


Featured Research Stories