News FocusAstronomy

Race for the Heavens

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Science  23 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5952, pp. 512-515
DOI: 10.1126/science.326_512

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For the past 5 years, astronomers at the University of California have been working on plans for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)—whose primary mirror will be a glinting mosaic of 492 hexagonal segments controlled with such precision that even light won't discern the edges between them. Meanwhile, another group has set its sights on building the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)—whose seven monolithic 8.4-meter mirrors, arranged like flower petals, will function as a primary mirror 24.5 meters in diameter. Both telescopes will capture images up to 10 times sharper than today's best ground-based telescopes and shoot for the same scientific goals, which include bringing into focus the first stars and galaxies, studying the formation of planets and stars, understanding the growth of black holes, and probing the nature of dark matter and dark energy. And both will cost a fortune: TMT's price tag is $1 billion; GMT's is $700 million. So far, neither side has come close to securing the total funding it needs. Given the funding challenges, some astronomers say the two sides should have joined hands to build one telescope to rival the European Southern Observatory's proposed 42-meter segmented-mirror telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope (see sidebar).