National Science Foundation will make decisions on funding worth billions for the Thirty Meter Telescope

The Race for Cosmic Dominance: National Science Foundation Faces Tough Decision on Extremely Large Telescopes

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is facing a crucial decision on whether to advance the Thirty Meter Telescope to the final design stage by September. This telescope project is in competition with a similar project in Chile for limited NSF funding. Initially, the NSF had plans to support two “extremely large telescopes” with apertures between 25 and 100 meters: the Thirty Meter Telescope in Maunakea and the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. However, the cost of each project has now reached nearly $3 billion.

In February, the National Science Board announced a $1.6 billion cap on the foundation’s investment in extremely large telescopes. NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan stated at a May board meeting that the next step is to assemble an expert panel to assess each project. This panel will analyze various aspects such as progress since preliminary design reviews, partnerships, risks and mitigation strategies, government models, scientific complementarity with other telescopes, opportunities for early career scientists, and engagement of the public.

Panchanathan clarified that this panel’s purpose is not to make a decision on constructing a telescope but to gather critical information to inform the decision-making process on advancing either project to the final design stage. The impact of supporting a project on agency resources during the design, construction, and operation phases will also be considered by the panel. While the panel is still being formed, a report is expected to be submitted to the NSF by September.

The Thirty Meter Telescope has been under scrutiny due to concerns about its environmental impact on Maunakea and potential conflicts with native Hawaiian culture. In March, Hawaii Governor David Ige wrote to Panchanathan expressing his opposition to supporting this project without addressing cultural concerns.

Meanwhile, Chile has also faced challenges with its Giant Magellan Telescope project due to funding issues and delays in construction. The country’s government has been working with private investors and international partners to secure additional funding for the project.

As both projects compete for limited resources and face challenges in their development process, it remains uncertain which one will ultimately receive NSF funding and move forward with construction.

In conclusion, The National Science Foundation (NSF) must make a tough decision by September on whether or not to advance either of these two massive telescope projects – Thirty Meter Telescope or Giant Magellan Telescope – into their final design stage. Both projects have reached nearly $3 billion in cost and are competing for limited funding while facing challenges in their development process such as environmental impact assessments and construction delays. An expert panel has been assembled by NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan

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