Ex-President Shelton to Oversee GMT Buildout
The Giant Magellan Telescope, in which the UA has a large stake, is positioned to be the world's largest astronomical telescope when it comes online in 2025.

By Daniel Stolte, University Communications
Jan. 23, 2017

Robert Shelton_GMT Background_Title.jpg.jpeg

Robert Shelton, who served as the UA's 19th president from 2006 until 2011, will lead the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization behind the development of the world's largest telescope.
Robert Shelton, who served as the UA's 19th president from 2006 until 2011, will lead the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization behind the development of the world's largest telescope. (Image: GMTO)

The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization has announced the appointment of physicist Robert N. Shelton to the position of president, effective Feb. 20. Shelton, who served as the 19th president of the University of Arizona from 2006 until 2011, will lead the organization behind the development of the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope, which is poised to be the world's largest astronomical telescope when it comes online early in the next decade. 

Shelton will work closely with the GMTO board of directors, the leadership at the partner institutions and the GMT team to complete construction of the observatory, slated to come online in 2025 as the first of a new crop of Extremely Large Telescopes. 

"With the UA being one of the founders of GMTO, and all the mirrors for the telescope being fabricated at the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, the UA really is at the core of making GMTO a success," Shelton said. 

Shelton said the GMT would be an incredible asset to the future of scientific discovery and our understanding of the universe.

"This observatory will have resolving power like nothing before — greater than the Hubble Space Telescope, greater than any other ground-based observatory," he explained. "This allows us to look back in time, because the farther you can look into the recesses of the universe, the farther you can look back in time. And that goes into some fundamental questions about the origin of the universe, the questions of energy and matter — and that, I think, intrigues all human beings."

GMT's assignments will range from studies of the first stars and galaxies in the universe to the exploration of planets orbiting other stars. Developed by an international consortium of universities and research institutions in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, and Korea, the telescope will be located at the Las Campanas Observatory high in the Andes mountains of northern Chile. Dark skies, a dry climate and smooth airflow make Las Campanas one of the world's premier astronomical observing sites. Construction is underway at the observatory site in Chile, and the giant mirrors at the heart of the telescope are being polished at the Mirror Lab.

"GMT will help answer questions about our fundamental humanity, and why we're here on Earth, and what we're going to do in our time to make the earth and the world around us better," Shelton said.

Among its peers, which are optimized to narrow their focus far into the distant universe, GMT will stand out with its ability to do just that, using its very high-angular resolution mode. But it also will employ a wide-field mode to examine relatively large patches of sky, explained Patrick McCarthy, who has served as GMTO's interim president. 

"That's really important when you look back at the early universe and want to understand how galaxies form and evolve," McCarthy said. "In order to build proper samples that are statistically valid, having a larger patch of sky to look at is an advantage." 

About Shelton's appointment, McCarthy said: "Our group is just thrilled to have him come on board. His experience and leadership will have a catalyzing impact on us and our ability to move forward. We are a hundred percent behind him and we are committed to his success, because his success is our success, and we view this as a big step forward."

Shelton joins GMTO from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, where he has been president since March 2014 and leads the vision and direction of America's first foundation dedicated solely to funding science. In addition to his tenure at the UA, Shelton has been executive director of the Arizona Sports Foundation and provost and executive vice chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, among many other notable leadership and academic positions at renowned public research universities. He also brings experience as a distinguished experimental condensed-matter physicist focusing on collective electron effects in novel materials, totaling more than 240 refereed publications, 50 invited talks and 100 contributed papers at professional meetings. 

Given the "unique combination" of his familiarity with the Mirror Lab and the UA's decades-long track record in astronomy, Shelton called the move "a natural next step for somebody with UA leadership experience being privileged to now take on leadership of GMTO."

Buell Jannuzi, director of UA's Steward Observatory, said: "I am very grateful to Robert Shelton for agreeing to bring his extensive scientific, administrative, philanthropic and leadership experience to a project that aspires to transform our understanding of the universe — from characterizing the nearest extra-solar planet, Proxima b, to trying to understand how the first galaxies formed. With the outstanding team assembled by the founding institutions, and under Robert’s leadership, I'm excited about the prospects for GMTO."

"The GMT is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me," Shelton said. "I think the UA should be very proud of the central role it has played in moving the project this far, and the role it will play in bringing it to closure."

"Expert leadership is critical to transforming the GMT from a bold vision into a world-leading research facility,” said Walter E. Massey, chair of the GMTO board of directors and chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "Dr. Shelton brings the skills and experience that we need at this critical time in the development of the GMT. The GMTO board looks forward to working with Robert on this exciting project."

Extra info

The Giant Magellan Telescope Organization manages the GMT project on behalf of its international partners: Astronomy Australia Ltd., Australian National University, Carnegie Institution for Science, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP), Harvard University, Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Chicago and the UA.