World’s Most Powerful Telescopes

  • Prosperity
  • 2003

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 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 in 2018 or 2019. 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 currently is nine years late after beginning in 1996, 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 a billion and a half dollars by the time it opens its “eye” about a decade 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 has poured approximately $900 million into basic scientific research in recent years, in areas ranging from marine biology to physics to plant science. The Moores provided a seminal early investment of $50 million in 2003 to design the Thirty Meter 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 and a major science donor (see 2002 entry), gave $35 million to the Magellan project before his death in 2013. His donations through Texas A&M University starting in 2004 not only launched the telescope from concept to construction project, but also spurred major financial and scientific partners like the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard, and the University of Arizona to sign on as well. In 2014, the University of Arizona announced that entrepreneur Richard Caris had made a $20 million donation to Magellan. That same year, site preparation began. Initial operation of the telescope, which will have a lens 82 feet across, is expected in 2021.

Most of the other great telescope projects of our current age have also been catalyzed by private donors. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope—which every few weeks will photograph the entire sky in fine detail, using the largest digital camera ever constructed, so that changes over time can be detected—was stalled for years until Microsoft fathers Charles Simonyi ($20 million) and Bill Gates ($10 million) made gifts that allowed production to begin on the device’s enormous mirrors (which take more than five years to manufacture). In 2016, a new kind of telescope built to detect gravitational waves that could lend evidence on the origins and evolution of the universe was made possible by a $40 million grant from financier and philanthropist James Simons.