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New telescopes could revolutionize astronomy, but at what price?

The case for adding new ground-based telescopes is compelling, astronomy experts say. But they cost $700 million to $1 billion apiece just to build.

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A third, more modest US project, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), also is vying for construction funds and has been on the astronomical community's priority list for the past decade. And astronomers are concerned that these big projects could siphon funds from other facilities used for important exploration that doesn't require telescopes whose light-gathering mirrors would fill nearly half a football field.

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An international 'science machine'

"The science of astronomy and astrophysics encompasses a wide range of topics right now – everything from asteroids and small bodies in our solar system all the way out to the first stars forming in the early universe," Dr. Silva says. "Attacking all of those problems efficiently requires a complete suite of telescopes and instruments."

Indeed, there is a great deal of synergy between the 8-to-10-meter class of ground-based telescopes, such as the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, and space telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope, says Roberto Gilmozzi, the lead investigator for the European ELT project. "Together they are a much better science machine than either separately," he says.

Moreover, researchers argue that they need more than one of these new, larger, ground-based telescopes to ensure wider access to cutting-edge facilities.

Funding remains an issue on both sides of the Atlantic.

For Europe's ELT, Dr. Gilmozzi is cautiously optimistic that the European Southern Observatory's governing council will approve the project at a meeting toward the end of this year. But that approval, he says, hinges on the governments providing construction money upfront.

They are exploring ways to do that now, he continues, so "the next few months will be very tense."

Setting priorities

In the US, all sides are waiting for an influential document, which is due out in September and will set out the US astronomical communities' priorities for the next decade.

While partners in the GMT project, for example, have already raised significant funds, all three US projects are looking for federal support.

But "the National Science Foundation has sent signals making it clear that they believe they can only fund one major ground-based nighttime project in the con-struction phase in the next decade," says Silva.

IN PICTURES: Images from the Hubble telescope

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