Grant Williams Appointed New Director of MMT Observatory

Having served as the observatory's associate director since 2007, Williams' goal is to ensure the telescope remains a competitive tool over the next decade and beyond, serving the interests of both its parent institutions, the UA and the Smithsonian Institution.
Jan. 4, 2011
Grant Williams
Grant Williams
The 21-foot diameter MMT Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Ariz. (Photo: Howard Lester, MMTO)
The 21-foot diameter MMT Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Ariz. (Photo: Howard Lester, MMTO)

As of Jan. 1, the MMT Observatory, formerly the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory, a joint venture of the University of Arizona and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is under new leadership. Grant Williams, who has served as the observatory's associate director since 2007, has been appointed the new director of the MMT.

Williams follows Faith Vilas, an astronomer at the UA's Steward Observatory, who headed the MMTO for five years.

The MMTO operates a 6.5-meter (21-foot) telescope, the MMT, on the summit of Mt. Hopkins approximately 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Tucson, Ariz., on the grounds of the Smithsonian's Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.

"I'm very honored to be given the opportunity to lead such a premier astronomical observatory," Williams said. "As an astronomy student, I was awestruck by telescopes such as the MMT. Even now, as the incoming director, I get goose bumps whenever I see that enormous primary mirror."

Said Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: "The MMT remains a major instrument in unraveling the mysteries of the universe. I'm confident that Dr. Williams' leadership will ensure the MMT's continued scientific productivity."

Williams received a bachelor's degree in physics from the University at Buffalo in 1994 and a doctorate from Clemson University in 2000. He first joined the MMTO in September 2002 when he was awarded the Firestone Postdoctoral Fellowship.

He was hired as an MMT staff scientist in March 2004 and worked as a technical coordinator from 2005 until 2007 when he was appointed associate director. His research focuses on the study of very evolved high-mass stars called Wolf-Rayet stars and the stellar explosions (supernovae and gamma-ray bursts) they produce.

"Over the past eight years, I've gained an intimate knowledge of the MMT and have become passionate about its capabilities and scientific potential. I've established an excellent working relationship with the MMT staff, and I plan to use this knowledge and passion to motivate everybody to work toward a common goal of maximizing the efficiency and performance of our observatory," Williams said.

During the past few years, the MMT has been used to study objects in our solar system (asteroids, comets, moons and trans-Neptunian objects), stars and star clusters in our Milky Way galaxy and in nearby galaxies, distant galaxies, galaxy clusters, quasars and exploding stars such as supernovae and gamma ray bursts.

Some of MMT's most recent exciting discoveries include dwarf galaxies lingering in the outskirts of our Milky Way and hypervelocity stars racing out of our galaxy at speeds of more than 1 million miles per hour – so fast that they will never return. Using a new device to quench excessive star light, astronomers at MMTO obtained images of a planet on a much closer orbit around its parent star than any other previously photographed extrasolar planet.

The original Multiple Mirror Telescope combined the light from six 1.8-meter mirrors on a common mount to provide the effective collecting area of a 4.5-m telescope. At the time of its dedication in 1979, the MMT was the third largest optical telescope in the world.

In 1998, the observatory began a two-year conversion project during which the 4.5-m telescope was replaced with a new telescope that utilized a single 6.5-meter mirror produced in the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. The new telescope, dedicated on May 13, 2000, more than doubled the light-gathering power of the original MMT.

The 6.5-meter MMT is currently the third largest in the continental U.S. Until recently, the MMT operated the world's only adaptive secondary mirror. The MMT Adaptive Optics system uses both natural and laser guide stars to correct image distortions caused by the Earth's atmosphere at a rate of 500 times each second.

On any given night, the MMT can be configured to use one of three different secondary mirrors. Its broad set of capabilities allows the telescope to be used to study a variety of astronomical sources. Its proximity to a large metropolitan center such as Tucson makes the MMT an extremely accessible and convenient telescope for both observers and the operations support staff.

"As director, I plan to ensure that the MMT remains a highly competitive scientific research instrument serving the interests of both parent institutions," Williams said. "Although the MMT is already a very reliable highly productive telescope, there is always room for improvement. 

In addition to working with staff to implement changes in operations that will improve reliability, performance, data quality and efficiency, I will continue to coordinate strategic planning efforts to ensure that the observatory will have a focus and a plan for the future and will remain a competitive tool over the next decade and beyond."

According to Williams, the MMT will likely play a role in the direct imaging of extrasolar planets and studying transient phenomena.

"I'm most excited about the people, the staff and the users of the MMT. As an astronomer and the director of the observatory, I'm lucky to see both sides of discovery; the day-to-day effort and commitment of the staff, and the scientific return that this contribution enables. The MMT staff is a wonderful crew of very talented people who are often overlooked when the science is discussed."