Thirty Meter Telescope Gets Small Grant to Make Big Plans

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a giant observatory that astronomers hope to build by the end of this decade, is expected to cost at least $1 billion. So a grant of $1.25 million may seem miniscule. Nonetheless, the backers of TMT are viewing a new 5-year, $250,000-per-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a significant milestone.

Until a few years ago, planners of TMT and its rival project in the United States—the 24.5-meter Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) were hoping to get the U.S. government to bear a sizable portion of their respective project costs. But in December 2011, NSF announced that there was no money available to support construction of either project until the mid-2020s. However, NSF put out a solicitation for proposals offering $1.25 million for the development of a public-private partnership plan that could lead to the construction of a large telescope, should NSF be able to provide funds in the future.

The GMT partnership, which is led by the Carnegie Observatories and other institutions, announced in April that it would not make a bid for the NSF grant. That effectively left TMT as the sole contender for the NSF award. TMT announced on Sunday that it had been awarded the grant.

The award is intended to help TMT plan how the project will partner with other institutions and engage the broader U.S. astronomical community. "The NSF award is a key development in our vision for TMT," said Henry Yang, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and chair of the TMT Collaborative Board, in a press statement. "The full promise of this revolutionary telescope will be realizable with the engagement of the national astronomical community." NSF's backing could also open the door for future funding for TMT from the agency, if not for construction, then at least for annual operations. NSF officials, however, have made it clear that this award does not imply a future commitment.

TMT's proponents expect to start construction at a site in Hawaii in 2014. Site preparation for GMT, which will be built in Chile, has already begun. Meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory and its partners are moving ahead with a third plan for a giant telescope, the 39.3-meter European Extremely Large Telescope, also in Chile.