World’s Most Powerful Telescope

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 2014

The most influential tool in astronomy and astrophysics over the last generation has been the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2014, construction began on a new instrument, to be located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, that will provide images 12 times sharper than Hubble’s. The Thirty Meter Telescope will have nine times the light-collecting power of the largest existing telescopes, and its new “adaptive optics”—making constant minute mirror adjustments to counteract turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere—will allow it to create images as sharp as those taken in space where there is no atmosphere to deflect incoming light. The potent instrument will initially be used to understand the formation of stars and planets and the evolution of galaxies, and is expected to have revolutionary effects on cosmology and fundamental physics.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is likely to work often in tandem with the James Webb Space Telescope—the successor to Hubble now being built by NASA for launch sometime between 2018 and 2020. The Webb telescope may locate targets that will then be studied in detail by the powerful spectrometers in the TMT. Interestingly, the Webb is a government-run, publicly funded project that is currently nine years late, with an expense overrun of four times the original plan, yielding a total cost of $9 billion. Meanwhile the TMT is a collaboration among U.S. universities and overseas science organizations, funded by private philanthropy, and its total cost will be about $1.2 billion by the time it opens its “eye” eight years from the construction launch.

The trailblazing funder enabling the Thirty Meter Telescope is the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Endowed by the co-founder of Intel Corporation, the Moore Foundation provided a seminal early investment of $50 million in 2003 to design the telescope, then pledged an additional $200 million in 2007 to complete the planning and initiate construction. By the end of 2013, Moore’s full quarter-billion dollar pledge had been delivered to project leaders at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California. Both universities launched campaigns to raise matching millions from other private donors, thus powering this landmark project almost entirely with philanthropic money.

There will never be as much instrument time on large telescopes as astronomers would like for conducting experiments, so a similar project—the Giant Magellan Telescope backed by a different group of universities and philanthropists—has been nearly as avidly supported. Oil and gas pioneer George Mitchell, father of the “fracking” process, donated more than $33 million to the Magellan project before his death in 2013. His gifts, given through Texas A&M University starting in 2004, not only launched the 25-meter telescope from concept to construction project, but also spurred major financial and scientific partners like the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard to sign on as well. Site preparation began in 2014, with initial telescope operation expected in 2020.