In a New Golden Age of Astronomy, Millions to Map the Universe

 photo: Vladi333/shutterstock

photo: Vladi333/shutterstock

One of the more impressive examples of the staying power of science philanthropy is its support for observational astronomy. Dating back to the country’s earliest mega-telescopes, donors have been in the mix, backing stargazing projects that have transformed knowledge about the universe and our place in it. 

The first major telescope in the world, the 60-inch reflector built on Mount Wilson in California in 1904, funded by the Carnegie Institution in 1904. Carnegie also funded a 100-inch telescope built on Mount Wilson—which, for decades, was the scene of major astronomical discoveries, such as the fact that the universe is expanding. In 1928, the Rockefeller family provided its then-largest grant of $6 million for the next historic observatory, the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mount Palomar.

This tradition of large-scale support of efforts to peer deep into the cosmos continues today, with a number of major telescope projects under way, including the Thirty Meter Telescope project in Hawaii, to which the Moore Foundation committed $250 million in 2003; the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, which is backed by the part by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, which has pledged about $35 million so far; and a number of other projects moving forward with support of funders such as the Keck Foundation, the Simons Foundation, Bill Gates, Charles Simonyi, and Eric and Wendy Schmidt.

RelatedThe Philanthropy of Stargazing: We're In a New Golden Age of Mega Telescope Projects

Meanwhile, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—a longtime stalwart of science funding—is the patient and deep-pocketed funder behind the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), which has been mapping the universe and collecting massive amounts of data for approaching two decades. It’s one of the largest and most frequently cited surveys in the history of astronomy, and its collaborative approach to collecting, distributing and analyzing big astronomical data has been highly influential. 

The project is, at its core, a huge partnership, with financial support from the NSF, the DOE and the several institutions participating in the effort. But the name comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for its significant funding from early on. The foundation just extended that support with a $16 million grant to back the fifth phase of the SDSS, which will cost an estimated $60 million

That phase is expected to begin in 2020, and notably, will extend the survey to the entire sky by collecting data from a second observatory in Chile. Previously, it was limited to the views from its original site, the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. Phase five will collect information on over 6 million objects through three surveys, looking at the formation of the Milky Way, observing supermassive black holes, and mapping nearby galaxies.

Since the first round of observations began in 2000, the SDSS has been sucking up images and spectroscopic data (measuring visible light and other kinds of electromagnetic radiation), creating the most detailed 3-D maps of the universe ever made, and improving our understanding of dark energy, the history of the Milky Way, and the formation of celestial objects.

While telescopes have some big backers in science philanthropy, SDSS is a unique project for Sloan. It is the only astronomy project in the foundation’s portfolio, but it’s also its longest-running scientific research project. Sloan’s probably best known for its fellowships, its public understanding of science program, or its funding in economics. But other interests at the foundation that have some alignment with the SDSS include its funding for data research and universal access to knowledge. 

That’s because one of the most important aspects of the SDSS is its collaborative and open nature. It’s the product of a pioneering consortium of dozens of institutions and hundreds scientists from around the world, bringing together physicists, engineers, computer scientists and astronomers, and sharing the resulting data in an online archive that anyone can access. 

As a result, discoveries are regularly made by outside researchers mining that cache of information. According to the SDSS, data from the survey has been used in more than 7,800 peer-reviewed papers, which have been cited 376,000 times. Most of those papers have been published by researchers outside of the consortium. Citizen science has also played a part, with survey data used by educators and amateurs astronomers alike. Galaxy Zoo, for example, is a citizen science platform that started by recruiting thousands of volunteers to crowdsource the classification of a million galaxies imaged by the SDSS. 

The legacy of the project is now being passed on to other, more advanced surveys. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, once complete, will record the entire visible sky twice a week with a 3.2 billion-pixel camera, collecting 15 terabytes of data every night, which will be released to the public. The LSST is another commonly cited example of private donations playing a relatively small but influential role in a massive project, with support from Bill Gates and Charles Simonyi preceding much higher federal funding.

But the SDSS continues to soldier on into its next mission, with Sloan sticking by it. The survey is a huge collaborative effort, and philanthropy certainly can’t take all the credit, but it is a case study of private donations catalyzing projects that extend far beyond their reach.