PASADENA, Calif.--The dream of a giant optical telescope to improve our understanding of the universe and its origin has moved a step closer to reality today. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded $17.5 million to fund a detailed design study of the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). This new grant allows the California Institute of Technology and its partner, the University of California, to proceed with formulating detailed construction plans for the telescope.
In earlier, more modest, study completed in 2002 resulted in a roughed-out concept for a 30-meter-diameter optical and infrared telescope, complete with adaptive optics, which would result in images more than 12 times sharper than those of the Hubble Space Telescope. The TMT-- formerly known as the California Extremely Large Telescope--will have nine times the light-gathering ability of one of the 10-meter Keck Telescopes, which are currently the largest in the world.
"Caltech and the University of California will work in close and constant collaboration to achieve the goals of the design effort," states Richard Ellis, director of optical observatories at Caltech. "We've had promising discussions with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, both of whom are considering joining us as major collaborators. Constructing and operating a telescope of this size will be a huge undertaking requiring a large collaborative effort."
According to Ellis, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's early funding will provide crucial momentum to carry the project to fruition. "The major goals of the design phase will include an extensive review and optimization of the telescope design, addressing areas of risk, for example by early testing of key components, and staffing a project office in Pasadena."
With such a telescope, astrophysicists will be able to study the earliest galaxies and the details of their formation as well as to pinpoint the processes which lead to young planetary systems around nearby stars.
"The key new capabilities promised by the Thirty Meter Telescope will include unprecedented angular resolution, necessary to resolve detail in early galaxies and forming planetary systems, and of course the huge collecting area for studying the faintest sources, which are often the most important to understand, but are beyond the reach of current facilities."" adds Chuck Steidel, professor of astronomy, who chaired a science committee charged with making the case for the proposed facility.
Following the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation-funded design study, the final phase of the project, not yet funded, will be construction of the observatory at a yet undetermined site in Hawaii, Chile, or Mexico. The end of this phase would mark the beginning of regular astronomical observations, perhaps by 2012.
Ellis says TMT is a natural project for Caltech to undertake, given its decades of experience in constructing, operating, and conducting science with the world's largest telescopes. Before Caltech and the University of California's jointly-operated Keck Observatory went on-line in the 1990s, Caltech's 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory was among the largest optical instruments in the world. Today, 54 years after its first light, the Hale Telescope is still in continuous use as a major research instrument.
"This project takes Caltech's success in ground-based astronomy to the next level of ambition," Ellis says. "The TMT will also build logically on the successful demonstration of the segmented primary mirrors of the Keck telescopes, a major innovation at the time but now recognized as the only route to making a primary mirror of this size."
Caltech is currently in the process of hiring a project manager to lead the technical effort for the TMT.
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was created in September 2000 with a multibillion-dollar contribution from its founders. The mission of the Foundation is to seek and develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. The majority of the Foundation's grant making concerns large-scale initiatives in four general program areas: the environment, higher education, science, and San Francisco Bay Area projects.
Written by Robert Tindol