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Astronomy survey results could affect TMT funding

A survey that could determine whether the Thirty Meter Telescope receives federal funding will be unveiled this week.

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, also called Astro2020, is a survey of major U.S. astronomy projects over the next 10 years conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. The survey is a comprehensive analysis of the current state of astronomy and makes recommendations for the future of the field over the next decade.

The priorities outlined in the decadal surveys historically influence funding decisions by the National Science Foundation. Recommendations by previous surveys led to the eventual construction of the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico in the 1970s and the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003.

The results of Astro2020, which will be released Thursday, have been veiled in secrecy. However, Doug Simons, director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, said he expects it will discuss about half a dozen major astronomy projects, including the Thirty Meter Telescope.

“TMT will be among the costlier ground facilities on the list,” Simons said, explaining that Astro2020 will divide its project priorities between ground-based and space-based projects.

Simons said the TMT ultimately will be competing for the number one ground-based priority slot in Astro2020.

“Number two and number three can maybe get funded if they’re small enough,” Simons said, but added that “small” in this case is about $100 million, while TMT’s budget is estimated to be about $1.5 billion.

Should TMT top the Astro2020 list, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will get NSF funding, Simons said, but there is no precedent for the top priority project on the survey to be denied funding.

“But if TMT is number one, people should know that doesn’t mean construction will immediately start,” he said.

After the release of Astro2020, the NSF will respond to the rankings, and conduct extensive evaluations of the top-priority project and its project site. In TMT’s case, this will mean a federal environmental impact survey, a community consultation process, and more.

“And then they’ll have to get the money through Congress, and god knows how long that will take,” Simons said.

John O’Meara, chief scientist at the W.M. Keck Observatory, said at a Friday meeting of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board that Astro2020 likely will affect existing Maunakea observatories as well.

Depending on what the survey identifies as priority projects or directions for the field, O’Meara said current facilities on Maunakea will be prime candidates for additional funding. And whatever space-based projects are identified as priorities, they will require robust ground-based support, which can be provided by the Maunakea observatories.

Simons said he did not want to make predictions about the results of Astro2020, but added that he expects spectroscopy — using the spectrum of radiation from an object to determine its physical properties — to be a priority for the field in the coming decades.

“The 20th century was the age of recording images of the universe, but the 21st century will be the age of recording the spectrum of the universe,” Simons said.

On the other hand, should TMT not be Astro2020’s top-priority project, Simons said the TMT will be in “a very difficult situation.”

Without NSF funding, the project — which is already tapping funds from the governments in Japan, China, Canada and India — will need to find another funding source to go forward.

A TMT spokesman told the Tribune-Herald that TMT will not speculate on the contents of Astro2020 before they are revealed.

Astro2020 will be formally unveiled Thursday morning.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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