The New Extremely Large Telescopes And The US’ Waning Influence In Astronomy

For many decades, the USA has been at the forefront of astronomy, whether with ground-based telescopes or space-based observatories like Hubble and the JWST. Yet this is now at risk as US astronomers are forced to choose between funding either the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) or the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) as part of the US Extremely Large Telescope (USELT) program. This rightfully has the presidents of Carnegie Science and Caltech – [Eric D. Isaacs] and [Thomas F. Rosenbaum] respectively – upset, with their opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times going over all the reasons why this funding cut is a terrible idea.

The slow death of US astronomy is perhaps best exemplified by the slow death and eventual collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope. Originally constructed as a Cold War era ICBM detector, it found grateful use by radio astronomers, but saw constant budget cuts and decommissioning threats. After Arecibo’s collapse, it’s now China with its FAST telescope that has mostly taken the limelight. In the case of optical telescopes, the EU’s own ELT is expected to be online in 2028, sited close to the GMT in the Atacama desert. The TMT would be sited in Hawai’i.

Of note is also that the TMT and GMT are both not solely US-funded at this point in time, but rather a partnership with a range of other nations, including Australia, Chile, South Korea, China, Canada, Japan, India and others. Even if the US only contributes funds to either telescope, the other partners may decide to pick up the slack, however the TMT project is currently in dire straits as the selected site on Mauna Kea has run into severe local resistance. This may force the TMT project to be sited elsewhere.

GMT and ESO’s ELT would seem to overlap significantly in terms of functionality and observed parts of the sky, making the TMT perhaps the most useful choice for US astronomers if they cannot have both. No matter what choice is made, however, it’ll mean more US budget cuts for astronomy and more US astronomers having to schedule observation time at EU and Asian observatories. Ultimately the USA as the guiding star in astronomy may significantly diminish, along with the positive effects of this status in the scientific community.

55 thoughts on “The New Extremely Large Telescopes And The US’ Waning Influence In Astronomy

  1. Now this is a bit weird. The Magellan is somewhere halfway construction, while the 30m is in some planning state. It seems unlikely that construction of the Magellan is being started before financing has been done, so I guess there is more going on here. It’s speculation, but it’s probably some kind of chess game to kick up some fuzz and get more funding.

  2. So why is the US picking up the majority of the tab for a jointly funded project, and why does it matter if US astronomers need to pay/get time on other telescopes?

    This article reads very much like spoiled kids who want the best toys, but doesn’t lay out why the *need* them

    As a taxpayer currently funding two foreign wars, cuts across the board are necessary.

      1. Russia is trying to overrun Europe. China has it’s sights on Taiwan. Both are colonizing Africa and both are trying to weaken the US. Now South American countries are trying to annex one another.

        Yah, I used to look at military spending as too large and wasteful too. But I don’t want to live as a serf in a land conquered by a dictatorship.

        This is HaD. Look at the history of “hacking” and “making” in the USSR. Do you want to live like that? I don’t.

        1. Russia overrunning Europe is Europe’s problem. America is well-defended by its geography, so we have nothing to worry about unless we get involved in fights that aren’t ours in the first place.

          1. Europe dying also means your current way of life dies too.

            Like, do you not remember how the bottom falling out of shitty American sub-prime home loans directly lead to the *global* great recession of 2008?

            It’s not just Europe’s problem. We’d be fucked too.

            Without Taiwan we borderline don’t even have a semiconductor industry.

            Turns out globally interconnected trade and commerce gets affected when global conflicts happen. Wild concept.

        2. Hi, unfortunately, what the US do does concern all of us in western hemisphere.Just like a tornado at your backyard does. And I just think the tax money should be spent for non-destructive things first, for building things up instead of tearing them down. Like making universal healthcare a reality or by improving education, which research is a part of. Both for citizen and those people leading the country. They can need it, more than ever. A nation as big as the US shouldn’t end-up being led by an over-powered military. Also, it has enough nukes already. To blow up this pale blue dot multiple times. And I’m concerned that the current/former leaders would actually do that, considering their attitude. Again, good education and financial investment in an independent and honest news press could have made a change here, especially in regards to the votings during elections.

        3. “Yah, I used to look at military spending as too large and wasteful too. But I don’t want to live as a serf in a land conquered by a dictatorship.

          This is HaD. Look at the history of “hacking” and “making” in the USSR. Do you want to live like that? I don’t. ”

          Speaking of USSR, the GDR, E-Germany used to always talk about maintaining peace through strong military while in reality, it teached their children to hate us and how to use weapons all the time.
          They were essentially building bombs while talking about defeating peace.

          In the 80s, the GST magazine* for the youth was full of pictures of kid soldiers, heroic stories of socialism/Russia, about UdSSR parades and tanks.
          The premise was to stand up and fight for peace all the time. By using weaponry/military rather than diplomacy.

          Whereas over here, kids same age had read mickey mouse magazines, played on their NES or C64 and never ever even had touched a real weapon before. In short, the people on this side had no intentions to ever attack the GDR/UdSSR, not in their wildest dreams.

          (Magazine of the “Gesellschaft für Sport+Technik”, society for sport+technology. It used to be a para-military organization for the youth. A bit like path finders, maybe. To be fair, it had fine articles about tinkering, even involving amateur radio. But it also had military doctrine that was being attached to everything. Again, not all people and kids involved were brainwashed, but the tone against the west was very aggressive at times.)

          1. Your not an American.

            I can assure you that most American kids in the 80s had plenty of exposure to weapons. Bricks and bricks of 22LR passed through my hands. An expended LAW rocket tube was just a prop for childish play.

            Of course it wasn’t/isn’t universal. Places like NYC/Chicago/LA neglect their children almost as badly as the UK.

            We can discuss the perfectly normal stages of psychological development for engineers…’pyromania’ and ‘explosive pyromania’.

            Take a little kid to a gun range today!
            Nothing pisses off the gun grabbers more than that.

        1. These people crying for cutting foreign wars now.. they aren’t the peace lovers who wanted out of Iraq. They are the ones who pushed for us to go into Iraq.

          They are entirely insincere when pretending to be pro-peace now. What they are is authoritarian. They love Russia and it’s dictatorship and that’s why they want us to betray Ukraine.

          1. >These people crying for cutting foreign wars now.. they aren’t the peace lovers who wanted out of Iraq.
            No, they are. But you’re a federal agent, so you know that already. Good luck with your propaganda campaign.

      1. How about cut both wars funding and both of these considering JWT’s cost and it’s brand new.

        Also cut the funding to literally everything else. The US national debt cannot afford to keep spending.

        1. Money is all make-believe anyways. The difference between $5 trillion of national debt and $50 trillion is entirely philosophical; do you think China is going to repo the US or something? There’s a reason politicians only care about the debt when it’s politically expedient.

          1. No, but eventually the spigot cuts off. So eventually you have to live within your means, or inflate the currency. Then, when a real emergency comes up and you need to borrow, the lenders say, too bad so sad, shouldn’t have wasted a bunch of money on nonsense and political corruption.
            So no, its not all make believe. It has real world consequences. As a reader of HaD I’d expect a lot more understanding….but then, maybe even this place has been overrun…

          2. Cody, You have to spend money to make money. Science and tech are an investment. Stick your money in a hole to “save” it and watch it’s value drop over time. We can invest or we can rust. There is no other way. Stop advocating for rusting.

          3. The idea we are investing money is a lie because we are paying how much in interest? To whom?

            If we weren’t paying trillions in interest that money could be invested but it’s not, it’s going to bankers. That is the real rust.

          4. Investing in ‘bread and circus’ has a very poor ROI.

            The same twits who believe they can print money forever are the ones claiming government spending is ‘investment’ and the SS trust fund is solvent. Laugh at them.

            FYI When I was young, I used to worry about what would happen when the first US treasury auction failed to sell out. Today I know what happens. The federal reserve buys all treasuries that fail to sell at auction. It truly is circular.

    1. The cost of not supporting Ukraine will be far higher. And sure, the USD60B is a respectable amount of money, but it’s still just 10% of the “normal” annual defence budget of the USA.

      As for Israel, they got what was coming to them. Even now they are extending settlements in Palestine. They’ve been doing that since forever. I don’t approve of Hamas / terrorism, but I can also see it’s the result of 70 years of suppression. And in the mean time those jews are multiplying faster then rabbits, with families of 15 or more children. Israel has been on a deliberate path to completely obliberate anything Palestine.

      1. The “cost” of not supporting Ukraine is avoiding the unnecessary death and injury of the majority of their young male population. They will not win this war, and we are abusing them by keeping them in the fight to weaken Russia by proxy. Either we escalate and invade Russia ourselves, kicking off WW3, or we throw in the towel and accept that maybe the US can’t arbitrarily project military force across the world anymore.

        1. Maintaining a stalemate is an approach.

          We did it successfully in the Iran/Iraq war. Whenever Iran started to win, we sent Iraq enough weapons to restore the balance. When Iraq started to win, we cut back the flow. It was double plus good.

          But that was a battle between two bastards in a 1300 year old war (Sunni vs Shia).

          The Ukrainians already ruined the Rusky’s plan.
          Finland in NATO, right on their border.
          Black sea fleet now mostly submarines.
          Russians now have to give weapons away, and most nations don’t want them at that price. (I’ll take an AK-74 and a Dragonov though.)

          As for Hamas…They’ve gotten part of what is coming to them.
          They better hope the Israelis never decide ‘we’ve been convicted of genocide, might as well do it.’ Palis population would go down, rather than up, after that.

      2. Anti-semite much?

        “And in the mean time those jews are multiplying faster then rabbits, with families of 15 or more children” Birthrate in Israel was 3.0 per woman (up slightly from 2.8 in 1990). In Palestine it was 3.5 (down significantly from over 6 in 1990). So just as accurately the Palestinians are multiplying faster than rabbits. IE you’re spouting bullshit.

    1. and nothing about anywhere else, Glaskows, in the southern hemisphere (minor mention of Oz). A most remarkable radio telescope to this layman in astronomy is the Square Kilometre Array which is being constructed in an area, both, of the state of Western Australia (mainly desert and with very limited EM radiation) plus an area in southern Africa (not sure where).

      1. The SKA (amongst a few other telescopes) in South Africa is situated in the Karoo – not quite desert, but almost, and as sparsely populated as the Auz outback. Radio emissions in that area are regulated. As you can imagine, getting power and data connectivity there is expensive (RF data is generally a no-no), so yeah…a few less wars please, and rather spend the money on research.

  3. Shocking we might have to live within our means. More shocking, we complain about it. Guess what, money is finite. You want the science programs, you’re going to need to cut something. Maybe Johnson should have left entitlements alone rather than using it for “Great Society” nonsense that turned into nothing but corruption anyhow. Maybe we shouldn’t have borrowed so much that interest is now the number 1 budget item. Maybe we should start thinking rather than just complaining about budget cuts.

      1. Not sure where you live, but in the US at least, the top 10 percent of income earners pay more than 76 percent of income taxes. It seems like the other 90 percent are not paying their “fair” share… so if your comment refers to the US, you really should get your facts straight!

        1. If you really think the fair thing would be that everybody should pay the same number of dollars in income tax, go live your truth. Divide the country’s total collected income tax by total number of income earners, go get a median income job and start donating all this excess money you think you’ll have. Then tell us how fair you think it is to be taxed to death while high earners aren’t even affected by the little bit they are losing. And remember that you still haven’t paid for social security, insurance, and day to day living expenses yet, and we’d like to think that the median worker should be able to save for the future and not live under a bridge eating dry ramen noodles. Now consider that’s the median, and we’d actually like it if most of the population isn’t experiencing a living hell, rather than “only” 1 out of every 2 people. Are you going to charge people more taxes to work for minimum wage than they actually earn in a year? It’s nonsense.

          1. Ok. I did the math and the top 10% pay an average of 40 thousand each and the bottom 90% pay an average of 1.3 thousand each… It seems pretty fair to me. It’s not like the two groups get different roads, education, military, etc. They pay vastly different sums for the same benefits.

          2. That’s… not a fixed dollar value like I was replying to. But also, using round numbers due to variation between data sources, let’s say that 10% of the reported incomes are below about $10k, while 10% of them are above say 200k or so. But the highest incomes in the top 10% are so high that the average of everyone in the top 10% is multiple times as much as the income of someone who’s just barely into that percentile. In the U.S. it works out so that out of every ten imaginary people, about half the income goes to one guy and half of it is split between the other nine. So everyone but “somehuman” sees that a fixed dollar value is an insane idea. But actually, let’s assume that 76% figure is right, so that the top 10% is earning half the money but paying three quarters the income tax. If so, so what? That still means they have a massive disposable income and would never miss the amount that was taxed if they weren’t looking at it. The bottom 10% could definitely appreciate being able to pay the bills this month, though.

            “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”
            If you think the top and bottom 10% get the same education, you’re nuts. Even if you only look at K-12, and even if a top 10%er puts their kids in public school… they won’t put them into a bad one, and they’ll make sure the kids are able to focus on school instead of saving or earning money. They’ll have access to all sorts of resources and money will grease the wheels in innumerable ways at every step.
            If you think the top and bottom 10% experience the military the same way… well from the outside, maybe. But your top ten might play around at drill and ceremony as a cadet somewhere after high school, and a few might become officers. Your bottom ten are the poor suckers enlisting and taking out loans on dodge challengers for 28 percent interest.
            And as for roads… Even apart from toll roads and paid parking, the roads always seem to be better maintained near the people with money. Almost like we don’t all have the same roads after all. There’s also the simple fact that most people find the cost of fuel to be large enough that they don’t drive as much as they otherwise would, outside of the necessary driving for work and such.

          3. Ok, so take what you are saying to it’s logical conclusion – the state takes everything and equally distributes it. What is the incentive to work? Why bother working 80h weeks at a job you suffered through 10 years of education to get if you don’t get more than someone who sweeps floors and never finished high school?

          4. Ah, no answer so better call the other guy names. How mature of you.

            It is completely logical, you just said that the amount you are tskong from the 10% is a smaller fraction of their income. If you take larger and larger fractions of their income the benefit of earning more decreases until the “logical endpoint” of everyone having the same benefits from working, no matter how much they contribute, is reached.

            A better question would be where is the line where you take too much to make trying to earn more worthwhile, ie. Why go get a phd when burger flippers earn 17.50 per hour here? What is the benefit in spending 10+ years of your life if you get taxed twice as much and have no difference in quality of living?

        2. The top 10% also receives over 50% of all income ( ) Yes, we have a progressive tax schedule; higher earners should pay more because they have higher disposable income after spending for basic necessities. Actually, historically, tax rates are actually much less progressive than it used to be in the fifties and sixties, when our economy was booming.
          You seem to imply that 10% should pay 10% of the tax, but that would be nonsensical: if we had nine taxpayers with income $100 and one with $1000000, of course that one should pay almost 100% of the tax, right?

        3. The real problem is that when 51% of the population become net leaches democracy is over.
          The useless eaters just vote themselves more and more. The good people leave.
          The middle class being net contributors is vital.

          Both crippling welfare states and gang rape are perfectly democratic things.
          Majority of people involved are for them.

  4. It is interesting to think back to the post-WWII heyday of the United States of the 1950s and 60s, when massive amounts of government spending funded science, technology, and economic infrastructure (“tax and spend” supported by both political parties with the rich willingly helping pay the bill)—and indeed this strategy paid off… massively!

    I’m certainly not a fan of racking up large national debts (yes, I’m aware of lower birth rates), but preserving America’s status as a great nation can’t be accomplished by “drowning our government in the bathtub.” Gone will be its ability to fund forward-looking, basic research that is not quickly profitable to corporations, who only look 5 years into the future, if that.

    1. Indeed, there’s a reason why most of the fundamental technologies that underlie modern-day society were developed and commercialised in the USA during the second half of the 20th century. It’s only much more recently that Europe and Asia are picking up speed here.

      You got to invest in order to gain a profit, after all. Often that involves ‘boring science’ such as scientists mucking about with materials in a laboratory (which turn into MOSFETs, CMOS sensors, etc.) or pointing expensive glass at the stars (backed by highly sophisticated technologies to deal with atmospheric disturbances, etc.). The USA used to do this in spades as you said, but now it would seem that the golden goose has to be strangled, without addressing the actual reasons for budget deficits.

      1. “there’s a reason why most of the fundamental technologies that underlie modern-day society were developed and commercialized in the USA during the second half of the 20th century”

        Coming straight out of a war economy without having to rebuild anything (unlike Europe and Asia), stealing anything even remotely advanced from Germany they could and pardoning every German scientist they could find (through operation Paperclip) certainly didn’t hurt. Not to mention the amount of knowledge they received from the British during and right after the war without ever repaying them or reciprocating (look into where the technology came from for Chuck Yeager being in control when breaking the sound barrier for instance.)
        Oh, and the trail of super-fund sites strewn across the US they could afford to have simply by having the luxury of having lots of “empty” land and lack of morals that Europe didn’t have.

  5. How is their irritation at not getting taxpayer monies a “rightful” irritation?

    This rightfully has the presidents of Carnegie Science and Caltech…

  6. I never said I wanted nasa cut. I just said you have to cut something and live within our means. Science may even need to be cut based on the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and how much we spend in interest. The fundamental truth everyone needs to accept is we’ve borrowed far too much, take too much from people already (count state, local, and federal taxes, and we are amongst the highest taxed people in the west). And we get next to nothing for our taxes because of corruption. If you don’t believe it, try looking at what we spend for and what we get for it. So no, we don’t need to tax more. It’s not a revenue problem. It’s a spending problem and a corruption problem. Accept it and maybe we can fix it. Maybe.

    1. Among the highest taxes countries in the west, preposterous. Your gasoline is still basically free compared to europe. Come back when a gallon of the higher octane gasoline hits 8 dollars.

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