National Science Foundation decides to fund only one giant telescope

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has decided that its astronomy program does not have sufficient funds for building both the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile, and will decide in May which one it will choose.

The GMT and TMT—both backed by consortia of universities, philanthropic foundations, and international partners—set out to build their next generation instruments in the early 2000s. But this privately funded approach, which during the 20th century produced the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the two 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes in Chile, stumbled when it came to multibillion-dollar projects. Although design work and mirror casting forged ahead, both projects failed to amass enough funding to complete construction. (A dispute with Native Hawaiians over the Hawaii site has also slowed the TMT.)

I predict that this decision puts the final nail in TMT’s coffin. That telescope was on schedule in 2015 — when construction was set to begin — to be already operational now, well ahead of GMT. The opposition in Hawaii by a minority of leftist protestors, who also had the backing of the state government (run entirely by the Democratic Party), blocked that construction even as the building of GMT’s mirrors proceeded.

Almost a decade later, while TMT sits in limbo, unbuilt, GMT is nearing completion, with its last mirror presently being fabricated and construction at its site now more than half done. It is expected to be finished by 2028, and is almost certainly going to get that NSF funding.

As I noted however in July 2023,

Not that any of this really matters. In the near term, ground-based astronomy on Earth is going to become increasingly impractical and insufficient, first because of the difficulties of making good observations though the atmosphere and the tens of thousands of satellites expected in the coming decades, and second because new space-based astronomy is going to make it all obsolete. All it will take will be to launch one 8-meter telescope on Starship and [GMT] will become the equivalent of a buggy whip.

The great tragedy of TMT is that the astronomers themselves at the project were not willing to fight that tiny minority of protesters, whose protests were based on the essentials of critical race theory that makes whites the devils and all other minorities saints. As academics trained in these insane ideas, the astronomy community accepted this bigoted premise, and out of guilt allowed those protesters to rule.

Giant Magellan Telescope begins fabricating its seventh mirror

The fabrication of the seventh and last mirror for the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) has begun, with its completion and installation expected before the end of the decade.

In the project’s latest development, the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab at another founding project partner, the University of Arizona, closed the lid on nearly 20 tons of the purest optical glass inside a one-of-a-kind oven housed beneath the stands of the university’s football stadium. The spinning oven will heat the glass to 1,165 degrees Celsius, so that as it melts, it is forced outward to form the mirror’s curved paraboloid surface. Measuring 8.4-meters in diameter—about two stories tall when standing on edge—the mirror will cool over the next three months before moving into the polishing stage.

Once assembled, all seven mirrors will work in concert as one monolithic 25.4-meter mirror—a diameter equal to the length of a full-grown blue whale—resulting in up to 200 times the sensitivity and four times the image resolution of today’s most advanced space telescopes.

A decade ago it was expected that this telescope in Chile would follow the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), while also working in parallel with it, with TMT covering the northern hemisphere and GMT covering the southern hemisphere. Now GMT is likely to forever work alone, as TMT remains blocked in Hawaii by the government and anti-western, anti-white protesters, and will likely never be built.

The troubled politics of ground-based astronomy

Link here. The article outlines the politics and negotiations now going on during the writing of the next astronomy decadal survey, the document American astronomers have published every decade since the 1960s to provide the science agencies in the federal government guidance on how to spend the taxpayers’ money on the next decade’s astronomy projects.

The focus is on the problems now faced by the two big American ground-based telescopes, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).

The future of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) likely depends on whether the survey recommends that NSF spend what sources put at $1.8 billion to support a recently forged partnership between the projects. If it does, other proposals could lose out, such as a ­continent-spanning radio array and detectors for neutrinos and other cosmic particles.

While some astronomers are pushing for this $1.8 billion bailout to save both, others are arguing the money can be better spent elsewhere. There is also a third option, not mentioned, which would be to abandon one of these telescopes and instead build just one.

The story is focused entirely on ground-based astronomy, which is remarkably very near-sighted for scientists whose job it is to see a far as possible. The future of astronomy is in space, and to not consider that alternative in this discussion means you aren’t considering all your options. For $1.8 billion, using private rockets and competitive construction approaches, I strongly believe a very large optical telescope could be launched that would provide far more cutting edge astronomy than any larger ground-based telescope. Hubble has proven that endlessly for the past thirty years.

Excavation begins on site for Giant Magellan Telescope

Excavation has begun for the site where the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) will be built in Chile.

Using a combination of hydraulic drilling and hammering, the excavation work is expected to take about five months to complete. Excavation is a key step towards the construction of the GMT, which is expected to see first light as early as 2024.

The 25-meter diameter GMT, expected to have a final weight of about 1,600 metric tons, will comprise seven 8.4-meter mirrors supported by a steel telescope structure that will be seated on the concrete pier. It will be housed inside a rotating enclosure that will measure 65 meters (~22 stories) tall and 56 meters wide. As well as working on the enclosure and telescope pier foundations, Conpax will excavate a recess in the summit rock for the lower portion of the mirror coating chamber and foundations for a utility building and tunnel on the summit.

Of the next generation of big telescopes, GMT is the closest to completion.

Two giant U.S. telescope projects team up

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.

Fifth mirror for Giant Magellan Telescope has been cast

The fifth mirror, out of seven, for Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) has been cast by the University of Arizona mirror lab.

With its casting this weekend, the fifth GMT mirror joins three additional GMT mirrors at various stages of production in the Mirror Lab. Polishing of mirror 2’s front surface is well underway; coarse grinding will begin on the front of the third mirror shortly and mirror number 4, the central mirror, will soon be ready for coarse grinding following mirror 3. The first GMT mirror was completed several years ago and was moved to a storage location in Tucson this September, awaiting the next stage of its journey to Chile. The glass for mirror 6 has been delivered to Tucson and mirror seven’s glass is on order from the Ohara factory in Japan.

In time, the giant mirrors will be transported to GMT’s future home in the Chilean Andes at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory. This site is known for being one of the best astronomical sites on the planet with its clear, dark skies and stable airflow producing exceptionally sharp images. GMTO has broken ground in Chile and has developed the infrastructure on the site needed to support construction activities.

If all goes right, GMT will begin its science work using 4 mirrors in 2020, with the use of all 7 mirrors beginning in 2022. This will be several years before the larger Thirty Meter Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope.

Ground-breaking for the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile

Even as construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii remains stalled because of protesters, ground has now been broken in Chile for the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).

The unique design of the telescope combines seven of the largest mirrors that can be manufactured, each 8.4 meters (27 feet) across, to create a single telescope effectively 25 meters or 85 feet in diameter. The giant mirrors are being developed at the University of Arizona’s Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory. Each mirror must be polished to an accuracy of 25 nanometers or one millionth of an inch.

One giant mirror has been polished to meet its exacting specifications. Three others are being processed, and production of the additional mirrors will be started at the rate of one per year. The telescope will begin early operations with these first mirrors in 2021, and the telescope is expected to reach full operational capacity within the next decade.

Assuming TMT ever gets built, it will, unlike GMT, be made up of many small segments.

The Giant Magellan Telescope project has decided it will not participate in a funding competition offered by the National Science Foundation.

The 24.5 meter Giant Magellan Telescope project (GMT) has decided it is not interested in competing for funds offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

With just US$1.25 million available to the winner, the NSF competition was less about money and more about prestige. The NSF has been adamant that it has no significant money to support either project until the early part of next decade. But the Thirty Meter Telescope, which will still respond to the NSF’s solicitation, believed that a competition would at least demonstrate the NSF’s intention to eventually support one project — and that the winner would have an easier time attracting international partners.

But the GMT says it can go it alone, at least for now. On 23 March, the group began blasting at its mountaintop site in Chile. And they say they are nearly halfway towards raising the $700 million they need to complete construction.

If the GMT has already raised almost $350 million without NSF support, it makes perfect sense for them to thumb their noses at this piddling funding from the NSF, especially since the bureaucratic cost of getting that money will probably be far more than $1.25 million.