The Billion-Dollar Telescope Race
Thursday, March 13, 2014
GMT Feature

When Warner Brothers animators wanted to include cutting-edge astronomy in a 1952 Bugs Bunny cartoon they set a scene at an observatory that looks like Palomar Observatory in California. The then-newly unveiled Hale Telescope, stationed at Palomar, had a 5-meter-diameter mirror, the world’s largest. In 1989, when cartoonist Bill Watterson included a mention of the world’s largest telescope in a "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon, he again set the action at Palomar. Although computers had grown a million times faster during those 38 years, and eight different particle colliders had been built and competed for their field’s top ranking, astronomy’s king of the hill stayed perched on its throne.

This changed in 1992, with the introduction of the Keck telescope and its compound, 10-meter mirror. About a dozen 8-10 meter telescopes have been built since. But it has been more than 20 years since this last quantum leap in telescope technology. Now, finally, the next generation is coming. Three telescopes are on their way, and the race among them has already begun.

Three new observatories are on the drawing boards, all with diameters, or apertures, between 25 and 40 meters, and all with estimated first light being collected in 2022: the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT, headquartered in Pasadena, Calif.), the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT, also in Pasadena) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT, headquartered in Garching, Germany). At stake are the mapping of asteroids, dwarf planets, and planetary moons in our solar system; imaging whole planetary systems; observing close-in the Goliathan black hole at the Milky Way’s core; discovering the detailed laws governing star and galaxy formation; and taking baby pictures of the farthest objects in the early universe.

Thanks to these telescopes, astronomy is poised to reinvent itself over the next few decades. Renown and glory, headlines and prestige, and perhaps a few Nobel Prizes too, will go to those astronomers that first reveal a bit of new cosmic machinery. Surprisingly, the story of this race will be written, not just in the technical specifications and design breakthroughs of the instruments themselves, but also in the organizational approaches that each team has taken. The horse race is a unique window both into technology, and into the process of science itself.