Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Giant Magellan Telescope Tells NSF 'No Thanks'

Breaking ground. Blasting has begun on a mountaintop in Chile where the Giant Magellan Telescope is to be built.

Francisco Figueroa/GMTO

The organization behind the $700 million Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) has decided not to seek any financial help from the U.S. government to build its 24.5-meter telescope. Its decision leaves the $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project as the sole contender for federal support, should the government be able to afford it in the future.

Although each team has raised a significant share of the needed funds from private sources and international partners, both had also been counting on a large contribution from the National Science Foundation (NSF). However, in late December, NSF announced that it did not anticipate having money to fund either project until sometime in the next decade. At the same time, NSF said it would offer $1.25 million over 5 years for the development of a public-private partnership plan that might lead to the building of a large telescope, if NSF were to ever have funds available.

The TMT project has welcomed the chance for initial NSF funding, and TMT board member Richard Ellis says the team is putting the finishing touches on a proposal that it expects to submit by the 16 April deadline. Meanwhile, GMT has opted out. On 2 April, the GMT Organization issued a press release that explained it would not be applying. "After careful consideration, the GMT Board has chosen not to pursue this solicitation, but to develop our own program for cultivating partnerships within the U.S. community and with our international partners," board chair Wendy Freedman wrote in a letter to Jim Ulvestad, director of NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences.

The announcement comes days after the team—which is led by the Carnegie Observatories and other U.S. institutions—began blasting out rock from a mountaintop in the Chilean Andes to start preparing the site where the telescope will be built. GMTO says it has already raised about half of the money it needs and is on track to build the telescope by 2020. "The partners in the project feel that they are making such rapid progress that they have chosen to press ahead at full speed, looking to link up with the NSF at a later date when the needs of both organizations are better aligned," the press release states.