Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Telescope Philanthropy

In the early history of astronomy, pioneers like Tycho Brahe depended on the generosity of kings to fund their science. Since the mid-20th century, this role has largely been supplanted by the government, through agencies like the National Science Foundation and NASA. Recently, with the federal budget slumping under the weight of excessive military expenditures and declining tax revenues, government funding for science has stagnated. But at the same time, a new class of philanthropists has emerged to help fill the gap.

Last week, Intel founder Gordon Moore announced that his foundation would donate $200 million to help build an enormous telescope with a mirror thirty meters (100 feet) in diameter. Imaginatively called the "Thirty Meter Telescope" (TMT), the California-led project is one of several competing efforts to build the next generation of large telescopes for astronomy research -- including the "Giant Magellan Telescope" (GMT) and an even larger European project called the "OverWhelmingly Large" (OWL) telescope, with a 100-meter mirror. All of these projects seek to produce the sharpest images ever obtained from a ground-based observatory (10 times sharper than images from the Hubble Space Telescope), offering new insights into the history and fate of the universe.

Moore's grant to the TMT project is just one example of a growing trend toward private funding for astronomy research. Last January, Google announced a partnership with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which plans to image the entire sky every three nights beginning in 2013, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is funding the latest efforts by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Several global telescope networks have also received private funding, including the Whole Earth Telescope (from the DuPont Foundation), the Stellar Oscillations Network Group (from Danish beer giant, the Carlsberg Foundation) -- as well as the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, which was recently endowed by a retired silicon valley technology guru.

While most funding for science continues to come from government sources, it is encouraging to see the entrepreneurial spirit blossom among astronomers -- and to see it rewarded with the patronage of new donors who hold a special place in their hearts for the stars.