TMT History and Formation
Near the outskirts of Pasadena, Calif., a team of scientists, engineers, and project specialists is busily planning and designing what eventually will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth. When completed in 2018, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars
throughout our Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time.
The nonprofit TMT Observatory Corporation was founded in June 2003 by its partners: the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA), the University of California (UC), and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
In 2008, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) joined TMT as a participating institution.
The TMT project was born out of the merging of three earlier large-telescope projects: CELT, the California Extremely Large Telescope, which was a partnership between Caltech and UC; VLOT, the Very Large Optical Telescope, led by ACURA; and GSMT, the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope, which was a partnership between the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO) and the Gemini Observatory. AURA was a partner in the TMT at the early phase.
These independent projects were pursuing similar goals: to marshal lessons-learned from today’s leading observatories and use that foundation to push the frontiers of technology thereby enabling astronomy research that has proven to be beyond the current generation of frontline facilities.
Helping to guide the decision to build a 30-meter class optical telescope was the 2001 publication Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium by the Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. The committee was charged with surveying both ground- and space-based astronomy and recommending priorities for new initiatives in the decade 2000 to 2010. The committee’s top ground-based recommendation and second priority overall was a 30-meter-class ground-based telescope that would be a powerful complement to the James Webb Space Telescope in tracing the evolution of galaxies and the formation of stars and planets.
Specifically, the committee acknowledged the need to have unique capabilities in studying the evolution of the intergalactic medium and the history of star formation in our galaxy and its nearest neighbors. This telescope would use adaptive optics to achieve diffraction-limited imaging and unprecedented light-gathering power. This recommendation was mirrored by the Canadian government in their recommendations for future major astronomy research projects.
In 2003, the TMT convened a Science Advisory Committee made up of representatives from the partner institutions and the broader science community to help match the technical capabilities of the TMT with the demands of the scientific community for a next-generation observatory. Their efforts were instrumental in forging the Detailed Science Case for TMT, which continues to guide the design of the project.
In April 2005, the TMT partners commited $17.5 million to the project office. Also that month, the TMT board appointed a project director and began the formal design and development of the observatory, the telescope, and its instruments.
In 2006, TMT underwent a Design Review and Cost Review, the preparation for which led to a much more refined and detailed plan for TMT.
In March 2009, TMT successfully completed its five-year Design Development Phase (DDP) with $77.1 million of funding provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. On April 1, 2009, TMT commenced its Early Construction Phase with the initial $30 million of a $200 million commitment by the Moore Foundation toward the further development and construction of the project. Matching gifts from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California are expected to bring the total to $300 million.