Looking Into Space and Revolutionizing Astrophysics

Dan Catropa, MSEM ’11, is leveraging his background and studies in the MS in Engineering Management program to help create the Giant Magellan Telescope, a telescope 10 times more powerful than current standards.

The sky’s the limit, but for Dan Catropa, MSEM ’11, he’s looking beyond the stars.

Dan Catropa is an Optical-Mechanical Systems Engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where he’s working on the Giant Magellan Telescope, a ground-based telescope spanning 80 feet in diameter that will be 10 times more powerful than current standards. Its first light, or first use, is slated for the year 2029. 

“We’re trying to create a telescope that’s going to be able to see farther out into space and further back into time than any instrument we have right now,” said Dan. “To say that the Giant Magellan Telescope is going to produce imagery that’s 10 times crisper than the Hubble, which is the current standard for space imagery, to me, is mind-boggling.”

From the Moon landing to the Hubble Space Telescope, advancements in understanding what’s beyond our planet have been made in just the past century. Experts estimate that a vast 96 percent of space remains unexplored, holding insights on our universe and potential answers to questions long theorized by astrophysicists. 

“The images they’re going to have 10 years from now – that’s going to be incredible stuff. We’re going to find things that are new; my small portion of it is just helping to design and build the hardware that can help do that,” said Dan.

Dan added, “There are so many elements of the universe that we don’t understand, and you can’t help but be in awe about the things you don’t understand. When you really stop and think about existence, meaning and what remains undiscovered in the universe, it serves as a mission and guiding light to be involved in the pursuit of new knowledge.” 

A multi-institution project with researchers and engineers across international borders, the 1.8-ton Giant Magellan Telescope will be constructed in the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Closer to home in Cambridge, Mass., where several critical optical instruments are designed and built, the MS in Engineering Management program’s lessons and experiences have proven to be useful as Dan continues to practice them.

“When I was growing through the MSEM program, I enjoyed it so much that I do feel like some of the things that I learned became ingrained in me,” said Dan. “When we were doing more of the higher-level thinking coursework, I feel like that woke something up in me.”

In Dan’s role, he works closely with various cross-functional stakeholders and engineering disciplines – electrical/mechanical design, CAD design, manufacturing engineers and more. Other times, he’s in the lab developing prototype setups – bringing together his technical background with the MSEM program’s leadership, emotional intelligence and business skills.

“Studying the distinctions between leadership and management, how they overlap – and the structural parts of management like preparing budgets, proposals and managing teams through management techniques – are important,” said Dan. “If you learn how to do that, you can interact and interface with more people across any organization … the combination of those things can be very powerful and it has allowed me to tailor my job to be what I want to do.”

With two young children, life is busy for the MSEM alumnus. But life continues. And so does work on the Giant Magellan Telescope, which is expected to unravel mysteries about space, and in turn, revolutionize our understanding of the universe.