The two consortiums building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) have teamed up in order to coordinate their research as well as encourage increased government funding for both.
The partnership, approved by the GMT board this month and by the TMT board last month, commits the two projects to developing a joint plan that would allow astronomers from any institution to use the telescopes; under previous plans observing time was available only to researchers from nations or institutions that had provided funding. The projects are discussing awarding at least 25% of each telescope’s time to nonpartners through a competitive process to be administered by the National Center for Optical-Infrared Astronomy—an umbrella organization that will replace the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), based in Tucson, Arizona, sometime in fiscal year 2019. Telescope backers hope the public access plan will help persuade the federal government to pay for at least 25% of the total cost of the two facilities, which could total $1 billion. (Cost estimates for the GMT and the TMT are $1 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively, but astronomers expect both numbers to grow.) “There are many science projects that are $1 billion class projects,” says David Silva, NOAO’s director. “The investment that we would want is of a similar size.”
…In making their case, the teams will argue the benefits of having telescopes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. “When you are covering the whole sky, you have greater scientific reach,” says Wendy Freedman, an astronomer at The University of Chicago in Illinois who was the founding leader of the GMT. The teams will also argue that the telescopes have complementary strengths. The design of the GMT, for instance, makes it ideal for a high-resolution spectrograph designed to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets. The TMT, which has more light-gathering power, could host a multiobject spectrograph to quickly gather demographic statistics on the universe’s first galaxies. [emphasis mine]
The highlighted sentences explain everything. First, government funding for both projects has been weak, partly because the National Science Foundation (the funding agency) has not been able to make up it mind which of these two U.S. projects to back. By teaming up as one project building two telescopes, the builders hope they will grease the wheels of the federal funding machine.
Second, by selling these two telescopes as covering both the north and south hemispheres, they indicate that the TMT is now almost certainly going to abandon its Hawaii location and move to the Canary Islands. GMT will be built at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, located at 29 degrees south latitude. By placing TMT in the northern hemisphere at 29 degrees north latitude in the Canary Islands, rather than Mauna Kea’s 19 degrees north latitude, they better compliment GMT in the southern hemisphere.
In other words, this partnership strengthens the case for TMT to abandon Hawaii. Not only will construction begin sooner (as the Hawaiian government has shown no interest in approving the project), the higher latitude as part of this partnership better justifies funding.
And the odds of getting that funding have apparently increased, as the chair of the House appropriations panel that funds the National Science Foundation has just shown himself to be very willing to give telescope projects a lot of money, more in fact than they even request.