New Telescopes Could Revolutionize Astronomy, but at What Price?

Article excerpt

The case for adding new ground-based telescopes is compelling, astronomy experts say. But they cost $700 million to $1 billion apiece just to build.

In a lab beneath the University of Arizona's football field, scientists are painstakingly polishing a glass disk nearly 28 feet across - the first of seven mirrors that, when combined to form an enormous optical telescope, would help revolutionize ground-based astronomy.

The telescope would reveal the universe's youngest stars and galaxies. It would analyze atmospheres surrounding planets orbiting other stars. In our own solar system, it would allow astronomers to explore frozen orbs far beyond the orbits of Neptune or Pluto in the so-called Kuiper Belt.

Nor is the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), supported by a US-led international group, alone. Another US-led, international consortium is moving forward this month on an even larger optical telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea.

IN PICTURES: Images from the Hubble telescope

And both groups are looking over their shoulders at the Europeans, who in April approved a site for the European Southern Observatory's Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), whose 40-meter light- gathering mirror would make it the largest of the three projects.

Even in an era of space-based telescopes, the case for more glass on the ground is compelling, astronomers say. The light-gathering mirrors on space telescopes tend to be relatively small compared with their ground-based counterparts. So they can't perform the detailed studies of distant objects as efficiently as the larger, ground-based observatories.

But these new telescopes are expected to cost between $700 million and $1 billion just to build. Operating costs are likely to range from $70 million to $100 million a year, several researchers say.

With all of the projects bidding for government money, "there may be some hard choices ahead," says David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson, Ariz.

In the United States, the choices revolve not only around which, if either, of the two projects to support.

A third, more modest US project, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also is vying for construction funds and has been on the astronomical community's priority list for the past decade. And astronomers are concerned that these big projects could siphon funds from other facilities used for important exploration that doesn't require telescopes whose light-gathering mirrors would fill nearly half a football field. …

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