Go with the Flow

Boeing helping shape design of future mammoth telescope

June 02, 2016 in Technology

Boeing Technical Fellow John Ladd explains results from a Computational Fluid Dynamics simulation that shows the path of air as it flows around the enclosure of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be built in Chile.


As one of the world’s largest telescopes begins to take shape on the edge of the Chilean Andes, its design will have Boeing’s fingerprints on it.

Boeing Research & Technology (BR&T), the company’s central advanced research and development organization, recently completed initial Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulations of design concepts and placement of the telescope for the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization (GMTO).

Boeing used its high-performance computing systems in Missouri and California to provide valuable wind analysis over the terrain, enclosure and telescope to predict how flow properties – such as air pressure and velocity – vary for specific wind conditions and telescope orientations at different locations on the mountain summit.

The work will help guide GMTO’s decisions on final telescope placement on the site, the shape of the enclosure, and the air ventilation and wind screen designs to minimize the enclosure’s temperature variations.

It was a unique opportunity for Boeing engineers, who are used to analyzing aerodynamic airplanes designed for low drag and high lift.

“This is a bit outside our usual playing field. Our typical CFD analysis doesn’t include elements such as a huge multi-segment mirror (80 feet in diameter), and mountainous terrain with large boulders and low valleys,” said John Ladd, a Boeing Technical Fellow who worked on the GMTO project. “It was a fun challenge and the work expanded our capabilities which benefits Boeing and future customers with similar challenges.”

Why is this type of analysis important for a giant telescope? It’s all about optical performance.

To get the best images of the cosmos, there must be minimal turbulence and temperature variations in the air above the telescope. CFD helps guide the best design options to minimize those conditions and also predicts unsteady forces on the mirrors, support structures and the adaptive optics system.

According to GMTO, the telescope will produce images 10 times sharper than those delivered by the Hubble Space Telescope once it begins operating in 2021.

A solid aerodynamic design is critical for the performance next-generation observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope, said Bruce Bigelow, the element manager for the enclosure.

“CFD studies led by Boeing experts have already generated immediate and valuable insights about the GMT’s site and enclosure design,” Bigelow said. “We are absolutely delighted to have Boeing on the Giant Magellan Telescope design team.”

For Boeing, the experience has been out of this world.

“The Giant Magellan Telescope is going to make new discoveries that will shape human understanding of the cosmos for decades to come, and we’re excited to contribute to this multi-national scientific endeavor,” said Boeing senior manager Bill Norby.

To learn more about the Giant Magellan Telescope project, visit the organization’s website by clicking here.