Budget tightening threatens funding for US mega telescopes

The Giant Magellan Telescope’s rendering of the completed project
The governing board of America’s National Science Foundation (NSF) has set a $1.6bn ceiling on its contribution to the cost of building giant telescopes.

The decision means that one of two megaprojects currently underway may be abandoned, Scientific American reports

The schemes competing for funding are the $2.5bn Giant Magellan Telescope in the Atacama desert in Chile, and the Thirty Metre Telescope in Hawaii, which is expected to cost at least $3bn.

The board of the NSF has asked the foundation to report back to it by May on which of the projects it thinks should be supported.

Work on the 25.4m-diameter Magellan telescope is under way.

It will be 200 times more powerful than any other reflecting telescope when it’s finished in the 2030s.

The seven mirrors for the device were cast at the end of last year. They form a light collecting area of 368 sq m. 

The Thirty Metre Telescope is to be sited on Hawaii’s Mount Mauna Kea. Work on it began in 2014.

The scheme has since become the object of intense political and legal conflict, with native Hawaiians objecting to the proposed use of the mountain, which is sacred in their tradition.

The consortium behind the scheme, led by the University of California, has considered using a site in the Canary Islands instead.

So far, Megellan’s funders have contributed more than $850m and TMT’s partners have contributed $2bn.

Scientific American notes that the US schemes risk being overshadowed by the European Southern Observatory’s 39m Extremely Large Telescope, also in Chile.

It says: “To some US researchers, the idea of losing access to one of the two planned telescopes represents a large blow to the country’s leadership in astronomy. ‘Great vision should drive great budgets, not vice versa,’ says John O’Meara, chief scientist at the WM Keck Observatory in Kamuela, Hawaii.”

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