The approval process for construction of one of the world’s most powerful telescopes — with the backing of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — is on the home stretch after plans earned the blessing this week of the Hawaiian Board of Land and Natural Resources. (See Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for Science Research).
The Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, will be 66 meters wide and feature a mirror with an aperture of 30 meters constructed from 492 smaller mirrors. It will include a total of 75 tons of glass. When fully operational — a milestone designers hope to reach by 2021 — the TMT will offer astronomers resolution many times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope.
The device will be constructed on the slopes of 13,800-foot Mauna Kea. According to the mythology of early Hawaiians, the mountain is the first-born offspring of the gods who created the Hawaiian Islands. The site's sacred status, as well as its ecological importance, is one reason for the lengthy approval process. Before construction can begin in April 2014, it will require final approval from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
To finance the project, the Moore Foundation offered a $250 million pledge that is as ambitious as the telescope project itself. In the early years of the project, the foundation gave $50 million to design the project. Most recently, it gave $15 million more to the University of California and California Institute of Technology for early construction efforts.
The TMT is just one part of a broad range of science grants, totaling more than $690 million in all, that have been distributed by the Moore Foundation. While Moore-supported projects cross many disciplines and ranges from applied science to basic research, many of them involve the development of new technology – much like the TMT — that will open new doors for scientific inquiry.
"The Thirty Meter Telescope represents the Moore Foundation’s long-term commitment to ask — and answer — the biggest questions about our world and beyond," said Steven McCormick, the foundation's president and CEO, when announcing a contribution from the National Science Foundation earlier this year.
So how does a researcher attract support from the Moore Foundation? The organization is not interested in unsolicited proposals. Its Science Program is full of Ph.D.-equipped staff members who comb through the latest research to look for work that fits with the foundation’s goals — important research with an "enduring impact" and "measurable outcomes." Catching the eye of these folks is the key to being invited to submit a proposal for a share of the foundation’s $5 billion endowment.