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Could take ‘four or five years’ for TMT to receive funding

Despite a strong recommendation that the federal government provide funding to the Thirty Meter Telescope, it likely will take at least “four or five years” before that project receives the money.

The Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, also called Astro2020, was released Thursday and included a strong argument that the National Science Foundation award $800 million to both the TMT and a similar Chile-based observatory called the Giant Magellan Telescope in order to maintain U.S. competitiveness in the field of astronomy.

But despite historical precedent — the NSF typically has followed the recommendations of previous decadal surveys — there is no guarantee that TMT will get the funding, and certainly will not receive it anytime soon.

Keivan Stassun, professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University and a member of the Astro2020 steering committee, said that both the TMT and the GMT are no doubt scrambling to get their affairs in order for a critical review by the NSF of both projects to take place in approximately two years.

In TMT’s case, this includes finalizing a site — both the Maunakea summit and a site in the Canary Islands, Spain, are possibilities — and filling a multi-million-dollar hole in its budget.

According to Astro2020, even if the NSF commits the full $800 million to TMT, it will still fall short of its estimated $2.65 billion construction budget by about $310 million.

If the TMT does not have a clear plan for how to secure those funds by the time of the NSF review, Stassun said, the NSF funding would be in jeopardy.

“The two things feed off each other, though,” Stassun said. “TMT could go back to its major partners and say that, if they contribute another $310 million, that will trigger the $800 million.”

But even if the TMT has all its ducks in a row by the time of the review in two years, NSF still will have to go through the long and arduous federal appropriations process, Stassun said.

Under ideal circumstances — “if we don’t have another government shutdown,” Stassun said — the first installment of funding could be awarded in four to five years.

Stassun also noted that the NSF is not bound by Astro2020’s recommendations, and could choose to award funding to only one of the two telescope projects.

“We’re counting on the NSF to take a very critical look at both projects,” Stassun said.

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

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