In July 2004 AURA submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation which requested $39.4M to provide funding for:

  1. the public portion ($17.5M) of the funding needed to carry out the Design and Development Phase for a 30-m diameter segmented-mirror, optical/infrared telescope (TMT); (see also NIO Efforts);
  2. funding ($14M) to advance to the Design and Development (D&D) Phase for an alternative 20-30m-class concept to the point where its performance, cost and risk can be assessed;
  3. funding for technology development common to both TMT and the alternative concept ($2M);
  4. funding ($1.5M) for community groups to carry out conceptual designs for two instruments: one for TMT and one for the alternative concept;
  5. $3.5M to support an education and public outreach program; and
  6. $0.9M to support a Theory Challenge program aimed at engaging theorists in shaping the design of ELTs.

The first of these investments was to leverage $35M in non-federal funding (donated by the Moore Foundation to the California Institute of Technology and the University of California), plus funds requested of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and was intended to enable AURA to participate fully on behalf of the US community in a partnership to advance TMT to a fully-costed Preliminary Design by the end of 2007.

The second major investment was to support a design study aimed at developing an alternate technical approach. After a competitive review, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), was selected for support. The GMT is a concept that provides the collecting area of a 21.5m telescope by combining the light from seven 8.4m mirrors. The project is a partnership among the Carnegie Institution, Harvard/Smithsonian, the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Australian National University, and is currently in the midst of its Conceptual Design Phase.

Subsequent to the redirection given to AURA by the NSF, AURA withdrew as a partner from TMT, and the funds provided by NSF were to be allocated so as to provide equivalent funding for design and development to both ELT projects, taking into account other AURA resources devoted to TMT. Initial funding was received in the amounts of approximately $1M in FY05, $2M in FY06, and slightly less than $5M in each of FY07 and FY08. Continued funding in FY09 (and beyond) is uncertain at this time.

This joint approach has a precedent: the NSF support of mirror technology in the 1980s, technology development that eventually led to the successful development of the Keck, Magellan, MMT, LBT, and Gemini telescopes. In this case, however, all of the NSF funding will result directly in community access to these telescopes. Moreover, the AO and detector technology will benefit the current generation of 6-10m telescopes.

GSMTPO’s primary role is to ensure that the resulting facility performance fully meets community aspirations. This is exercised by means of a combination of technical monitoring of the two projects, as well as interactions with the projects through the GSMT SWG and activities sponsored by the SWG. This approach will allow AURA to keep apprised of the progress of both ELT programs in order to maximize transparency of technical studies, and to ensure that the imagination and technical talent in the US community is fully engaged in developing key technologies and instrument concepts.

European ELT

In addition to the two projects with strong US participation described above, and supported by the NSF, the European Southern Observatory is developing an ELT with similar scientific goals. This project is another potential partner for technology development efforts, and is not excluded as a potential partner that could provide ELT access for the US community.