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Slice of the sky

A&M, others race to fund world’s largest telescope

Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 22:01



Conceptual image of the Giant Magellan Telescope Project shows what the telescope could look like if fully funded.

Texas’ race to help build the world’s largest telescope may be in jeopardy if Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin, among other institutions, do not find a way to meet funding requirements within the next year.

Texas A&M and UT are two of the nine partners that make up the Giant Magellan Telescope Project, an international collaboration that aims to build an observatory in the Andes Mountains capable of producing images 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. Texas A&M and UT astronomers agree that the GMT will revolutionize astronomy in the future — if it is funded now.

A Slice of the Sky
Last week, an outside review committee conducted a Preliminary Design Review on the GMT project and recommended that the telescope “start the construction phase as rapidly as possible.”

“The telescope is technically on track, the plans are in place, the management and systems engineering are going really well,” said Darren DePoy, physics professor at Texas A&M and member of GMT’s board of directors. “The last thing to do now is raise enough money to go build all of it.”

The GMT’s total cost is estimated to be $1.05 billion. So far, the nine partners have collectively raised close to $500 million. Each partner institution aims to raise 10 percent of the total cost for viewing rights on the completed telescope; however, the amount that each has pledged for their slice of the sky varies, with one Texas partner lagging behind, DePoy said.

“There are two institutions that have not contributed a very large amount of money up until now, and those two institutions are the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Texas,” DePoy said.

Ten percent of the total cost is $100 million, and UT has pledged only $3.4 million to date. Texas A&M has pledged $30 million of its expected share, and both institutions are working now to meet their obligations by year’s end, a deadline DePoy described as critical.

“There are many different factors that play into whether to start [construction] or not,” DePoy said. “One of them was passing this design review, which we just did. Another one is, do we have enough money to feel comfortable to start? If we delay making this decision, then you delay the start of some of these major construction items, and that has a cost associated.”

DePoy said delaying would increase cost through inflation and keep a project staff on the payroll even though no construction would be taking place.

Paying the Bills
Texas A&M’s contribution has so far come largely from the philanthropic activity of the late George P. Mitchell, Class of 1940. His donations to the Texas A&M physics department, coupled with internal funds, constitute Texas A&M’s current raised capital.

Joseph Newton, dean of Texas A&M’s College of Science, said A&M is working to finalize an additional $25 million contribution.

“It’s very complicated, but we’re close to finalizing [$25 million],” Newton said. “[It will come] partly from the University, partly donations and once the telescope is built we can sell some of our ‘nights’ for a few years [as funding.]”

David Lambert, director of UT’s McDonald Observatory and member of GMT’s board of directors, said UT is working to fill the fundraising gap between it and the GMT’s other partners.

“Our goal is to be a 10 percent partner, which in round numbers is $100 million,” Lambert said. “And the prospect of that $100 million will be raised by half coming from the institution and half from private fundraising.”

Lambert acknowledged the critical time period that DePoy discussed, but said the sheer size of the undertaking has been a challenge of its own.

“The principal object of difficulty is the size of the request,” Lambert said. “It’s not easy these days to come across $100 million.”

Space Race
A reason to begin construction within the year, apart from costly delay, is the prestige of being the first to view the universe with such a powerful instrument. The GMT is not the only next-generation telescope being planned and may be at risk of losing its head start.

DePoy named two other telescopes on the GMT’s scale that are currently in the planning stages — the Thirty Meter Telescope, planned by a consortium of Californian universities, Japan, China and India and the European Extremely Large Telescope, by an assortment of European countries.

“There’s a vast amount of science that we’ll be able to do and whatever group gets the telescope built first will do those interesting things,” DePoy said.

Lambert said Texas has a chance at securing its position at the forefront of astronomy through the coming years, if Texas A&M and UT can come through on their financial pledges.

“The GMT gives astronomers here access to a premier optimal instrument to probe the frontiers of astronomy across several areas,” Lambert said. “If you want to be a first-class institution, you have to have access to first class facilities, and GMT is precisely that.”


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