Giant Telescopes Face NSF Funding Delay

3 January 2012 5:52 pm

For nearly a decade now, two university consortia in the United States have been in a race to build two ground-based telescopes that would be several times bigger than today's biggest optical telescope. One group—led by the University of California—plans to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii. The other team—led by Carnegie Observatories, the University of Arizona, and other institutions—is developing a 28-meter behemoth named the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), which would be built in Chile. Over the past few years, both teams have raised tens of millions of dollars toward the billion-dollar-plus projects in the hope that the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) would come up with the balance.

But now, it turns out, neither project has a chance of receiving any significant funding from NSF for at least another decade. In a solicitation posted by NSF last week, the agency indicated that it does not expect to fund the building of any giant segmented mirror telescopes—that is, TMT or GMT—until the beginning of the 2020s. According to the solicitation, all that NSF can provide right now is $1.25 million over 5 years for the development of a public-private partnership plan that could eventually lead to the building of a large telescope, should NSF be in a position to fund such a telescope sometime in the next decade.

Since both TMT and GMT were aiming to start operations before 2020, NSF's solicitation effectively signals that the two projects are now on their own, with no hope of government support in the near term. Each team has spent millions developing its own technological scheme, making a merger of the two plans highly unlikely. If the teams want to build their telescopes within their planned timeframes, they will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in private funding or seek out international partners. Meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory has begun the formal approval process for funding the 39.2 meter European Extremely Large Telescope, which the Europeans expect to build at a cost of €1.1 billion over the next decade.

For several years, scientists involved in the TMT and GMT projects have been pressing NSF to put its weight behind one or both of the telescopes, so that U.S. astronomers might have access to a Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope (GSMT) before 2020. It also received top billing in the 2000 astronomy decadal survey by the National Academies' National Research Council. But NSF officials watched quietly from the sidelines as the project, short of funding, dropped to third place among ground-based projects in the 2010 survey. Six weeks ago, an impatient Congress directed NSF to avoid any further delay in picking "a viable GSMT project." The language, tucked into the 2012 appropriations bill for NSF and several other agencies, urged that the selection be made "expeditiously and utilize a fully competitive process, with a solicitation issued no later than the end of calendar year 2011 and a result announced no later than July 31, 2012."

That kick in the pants from Congress forced NSF to put out last week's solicitation. But James Ulvestad, head of the astronomy division at NSF, says the agency simply doesn't have the money to actually commit to a GSMT project. "We don't expect to have any substantial money to put into a GSMT this decade," Ulvestad told ScienceInsider. The intent of the solicitation is to "find the best option for a project that would have community participation in the future. … It's just a consequence of the budget realities."

Proposals are invited by 12 April. Ulvestad says NSF will likely make one, not two awards.

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