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

Large, ground-based telescopes have allowed researchers to observe far-off planets and better grasp the nature of the universe. Private philanthropy has propped up these powerful stargazers throughout history, including a new wave of massive telescope projects in the works.

Amid budget cuts and political attacks, government funding of science has undergone a bit of turmoil lately, which poses a threat to huge capital projects like building and maintaining observatories. But even before Lamar Smith took over the House's committee on science, private funding was playing a unique role in the construction of telescopes. 

Telescopes are among the largest financial commitments in science research, with current projects underway surpassing billion-dollar budgets. So they have historically been products of huge partnerships—between multiple nations, universities, private donors, and sometimes all of the above. 

Even from the very beginning of the modern mega-telescopes, philanthropy was key. The first such project, the 60-inch reflector built on Mount Wilson in California, was built with a grant from the Carnegie Institution in 1904. This telescope helped astronomers measure the size of our galaxy and our place within it. Carnegie also funded a 100-inch telescope built on Mount Wilson that was used to discover the universe was 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. Rockefeller's president, Judith Rodin, recently cited that grant as an early example of its risk-taking philanthropy, as famed astronomer George Hale wasn't sure at the time that the telescope would actually work, though if it did, it promised to quadruple the power of the best devices at the time.

Still today, telescopes making groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy are often backed at some level by private money. And telescope construction is entering a similar turning point in history, as there are multiple projects in the works to build telescopes that would dwarf the current world leaders. And while they are too big for any one private donor or foundation to fund, philanthropy is playing an important role in some of them, as philanthropies provide important chunks of support in coordination with universities and governments. 

Here’s a roundup of some of the more exciting telescope projects happening in astronomy these days, and the philanthropists helping to pick up the tab.

The Thirty Meter Telescope

One thing about big telescope projects is that they have the most unimaginative names. Case in point: the TMT, which describes exactly what it will be someday. The telescope is an estimated $1.4 billion project that will be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The project just broke ground after ongoing resistance from local groups due to the environmental and cultural impact. Despite ongoing protests, it now appears to be in the clear legally. Mauna Kea is a key locale for astronomy right now, with 12 existing telescopes at the site, on a chunk of land near its 14,000-foot peak that was carved out for researchers in the 1960s.  

But the TMT will be much larger than the rest of the telescopes on the mountain, 30-meters in diameter compared to the Keck Observatory’s 10-meter telescopes. And remember that the Hale breakthrough was just five meters. New materials and processes have cleared the way for much larger mirrors that will provide petabytes of data for astronomers to study once complete. 

The Thirty-Meter is a collaborative project of several universities and agencies, including Caltech, the University of California, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. In terms of private support, this is Gordon and Betty Moore’s baby. The TMT is the Moore Foundation’s signature priority. The foundation committed $250 million to the project beginning in 2003. If all goes as planned, the Goliath will start sucking up data from the stars around 2021.

Related - Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Giant Magellan Telescope

OK, that name is a little better. One of a couple of competitors to the Thirty Meter, the GMT would be one in a suite of telescopes that will mark this serious step up from the status quo. Since the Hale telescope, 10-meters became the cutting edge in the 1990s, but there hasn’t been a major boost in size since then. But the TMT, the GMT, and the European Space Agency’s Extremely Large Telescope (that’s seriously its official name) would change the game. 

The Giant Magellan Telescope brings us to the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the other main geographic front in modern telescope developments. The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest, clearest places on the planet, an almost Martian environment with little human presence that is perfect for building telescopes. 

The Magellan Telescope has a lot of parallels with the Thirty Meter, although its main mirror is 24.5 meters in diameter. It’s also gathered up a huge partnership to cover its $1 billion price tag, with main players including Harvard, the Smithsonian, Texas A&M, University of Arizona, University of Chicago, Australian National University, and the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute. The Texas presence paved the way for the main philanthropic partner, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. The family foundation of the so-called “father of fracking,” Mitchell has pledged about $35 million so far. The GMT is shooting for around 2020. 

Related - Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

The so-called LSST (snappy!) is a little different from the other big projects in the making, in that its main strength will be breadth of observation. The observatory will take several surveys of the entire night sky several times a week, something that’s never been done before. While other telescopes prioritize mirror size, this telescope has a wide scope of vision, and will gather tremendous amounts of data to map the sky. 

It’s been described as what will be the world’s largest digital camera, at 3 billion pixels, snapping movie-like color images of the entire southern sky, hence the “synoptic” element. The project will produce more than 100 petabytes of data in 10 years, which will all be made available to the public immediately as it's gathered.

Given its dedication to massive data collection, it’s not too surprising that the LSST has drawn some prominent geeks to fund the telescope. It’s a public-private partnership, so it’s funded with a combination of NSF and DOE funds, but has also drawn several large donors. The two biggest are Bill Gates, who gave $10 million to the project, and former Microsoft colleague Charles Simonyi, who gave $20 million. But the list of big donors is a who’s who of science funders. You’ve got the W.M. Keck Foundation (more later), Eric and Wendy Schmidt, and the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, all of which gave more than $1 million each.

Related - IP Profile of Charles Simonyi

The Keck Telescopes

It would be an oversight not to talk about the Keck Foundation when it comes to large telescopes. While the W.M. Keck Foundation is not a player in the race to build telescopes in the 30-meter range, it has been a pioneer and a major funder of the leading telescopes that have been operating since the 1990s. 

For starters, there’s the Keck Observatory, made up of two telescopes, each with a primary mirror of 10 meters. Howard B. Keck, the second generation in the oil-based Keck philanthropy, followed in the footsteps of Rockefeller and Carnegie in 1985 by giving $70 million (about $155 million in 2014 dollars) to Caltech to build the first of the two telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Until the new mega-telescopes come online sometime after 2020, the Keck telescopes remain among the most powerful around. The observatory has been used to make meaningful discoveries in astronomy during that time. Recently, the observatory finished a $4 million fundraising campaign led by the Keck Foundation, Moore, and the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation to upgrade its optics system.

Keck’s other major related contribution, aside from its funding for the LSST’s construction, is funding a series of radio telescopes at the South Pole, called the BICEP and Keck Array. The array was important to the discovery on the origins of the universe that made big news last year, but which is now in dispute, as tends to happen. As you might imagine, the Keck Array received funding from the Keck Foundation, $2.3 million, as well as support from Moore. 

Related - W.M. Keck Foundation: Grants for Science Research

As we always tend to emphasize when it comes to big science funding, private philanthropy is by no means carrying the full burden of this work. The world’s national government agencies still provide the vast bulk of funding, and this doesn’t even get into space telescopes like the Hubble. 

In fact, while these big philanthropists have historically provided surges of cash for huge telescopes, one of the most exciting things about these billion-dollar-plus projects is the level of cooperation required. Governments, universities and individuals are all needed to get something like this off the ground, and that’s not likely to change. But who knows? Maybe with the rise of the citizen scientist, a crowdfunded observatory is somewhere on the horizon. It would have to be a big crowd.