American Astronomy’s Future Goes on Trial in Washington
by Dennis Overbye, New York Times, March 13, 2020 (excerpts)
… Recently, in what amounted to a kind of cosmic Supreme Court hearing, two giant telescope projects pleaded for their lives before a committee charged with charting the future of American astronomy.
Either of the telescopes — the Thirty Meter Telescope, slated for the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, and the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile — would be roughly three times larger and 10 times more powerful than anything now on Earth. Working in concert, they could tackle deep questions about the cosmos. But they are hundreds of millions of dollars short of the money needed to build them.
Failure to build them, American astronomers say, would cede dominion over the skies to Europe, which is building its own behemoth observatory in Chile, and which will be available only to European researchers. The prospective builders fear an echo of a moment in the late 20th century when scientists in the United States lost ground in particle physics to European researchers, and never really recovered in producing path-making discoveries in that field.
“Europe is utterly indifferent to what the U.S. does,” said Matt Mountain….
Dr. Mountain said that for the projects’ staffs, the hearings are like a lobster trap: “They have to get through this if they want to go to the next stage.”
This was the first and last chance the astronomers would have to plead their cases in public; the remainder of the year will be given to closed-door meetings and peer-reviewed reports, concluding next year in final recommendations for space- and ground-based astronomy.
A blessing by the academy of either or both telescope projects could open the door to money from the National Science Foundation, which has traditionally supported astronomy in the United States, but has yet to contribute to either endeavor….
“We were asked by you if our software was going to be late,” Gary Sanders, project manager for the (TMT) telescope, said to the panelists at one point. “It’s not late.”
The telescope is “shovel ready, just not shovel accessible,” he added.
The testimony provided a rare look at the financial and managerial details of these ambitious projects, revealing that they will be more expensive than advertised over the last 20 years of development and promotion. The Thirty Meter Telescope collaboration has long floated a cost estimate of $1.4 billion. The figures released Tuesday put the cost at about $2.4 billion. The latest price tag for the Giant Magellan is now about $2 billion.
Under the deal being promoted by Dr. Mountain and his colleagues, about a third of the cost — $850 million for each telescope — would be provided by the National Science Foundation. As a result, the National Science Foundation would own one-third of the observing time on these telescopes, and would make it available to all American astronomers.….
Under questioning, the telescope collaborations also had to admit that they had not raised all the money needed to pay their own shares of the telescopes.
“How do we make a plan that closes?” Dr. Heckmann asked.
Dr. Charbonneau went on to address one of the elephants in the room: What if the Mauna Kea site was not feasible in the end, and the Thirty Meter observatory had to move to the Canary Islands? Were all the partners in the collaboration, which includes Canada, India, Japan and China in addition to Caltech and the University of California, still committed?
Dr. Sanders punted to Edward Stone, executive director of the Thirty Meter collaboration and an astrophysicist at Caltech. “The agreement is for Mauna Kea,” Dr. Stone said quietly. “Each member would have to agree to go to La Palma,” he said.
He added, “We’re not there yet.” Some of the partners were already willing to move the telescope, he said, but others wanted to wait and see what happened in Hawaii….
In January, a bill was introduced into both houses of Hawaii’s Legislature that would establish a reconciliation commission to mediate between protesters and the state. Its sponsors hope to “decouple” the dispute of Mauna Kea from broader conflicts over issues such as housing, education, health care and the preservation of Hawaiian culture, which linger from the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and its territory’s subsequent annexation by the United States. According to Dr. Stone, “quiet conversations” were being held with state leaders, telescope opponents and astronomers….
If the talks fail, Dr. Stone added, “I’m sure the partners will agree to go to La Palma.”….
A final decision, Dr. Sanders added, was a few months away….
read … The New York Times