The dream of a giant optical telescope to improve
our understanding of the universe and its origin has moved a step
closer to reality today. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
awarded $17.5 million to fund a detailed design study of the
Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). This new grant allows the California
Institute of Technology and its partner, the University of
California, to proceed with formulating detailed construction plans
for the telescope.

An earlier, more modest, study completed in 2002 resulted in a
roughed-out concept for a 30-meter-diameter optical and infrared
telescope, complete with adaptive optics, which would result in
images more than 12 times sharper than those of the Hubble Space
Telescope. The TMT– formerly known as the California Extremely Large Telescope–will have nine times the light-gathering ability of
one of the 10-meter Keck Telescopes, which are currently the largest
in the world.

“Caltech and the University of California will work in close and
constant collaboration to achieve the goals of the design effort,”
states Richard Ellis, director of optical observatories at Caltech.
“We’ve had promising discussions with the Association of Universities
for Research in Astronomy and the Association of Canadian
Universities for Research in Astronomy, both of whom are considering
joining us as major collaborators. Constructing and operating a
telescope of this size will be a huge undertaking requiring a large
collaborative effort.”

According to Ellis, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s early
funding will provide crucial momentum to carry the project to
fruition. “The major goals of the design phase will include an
extensive review and optimization of the telescope design, addressing
areas of risk, for example by early testing of key components, and
staffing a project office in Pasadena.”

With such a telescope, astrophysicists will be able to study the
earliest galaxies and the details of their formation as well as to
pinpoint the processes which lead to young planetary systems around
nearby stars.

“The key new capabilities promised by the Thirty Meter Telescope will
include unprecedented angular resolution, necessary to resolve detail
in early galaxies and forming planetary systems, and of course the
huge collecting area for studying the faintest sources, which are
often the most important to understand, but are beyond the reach of
current facilities.”” adds Chuck Steidel, professor of astronomy, who
chaired a science committee charged with making the case for the
proposed facility.

Following the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation-funded design study,
the final phase of the project, not yet funded, will be construction
of the observatory at a yet undetermined site in Hawaii, Chile, or
Mexico. The end of this phase would mark the beginning of regular
astronomical observations, perhaps by 2012.

Ellis says TMT is a natural project for Caltech to undertake, given
its decades of experience in constructing, operating, and conducting
science with the world’s largest telescopes. Before Caltech and the
University of California’s jointly-operated Keck Observatory went
on-line in the 1990s, Caltech’s 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar
Observatory was the largest optical instrument in the world. Today,
54 years after its first light, the Hale Telescope is still in
continuous use as a major research instrument.

“This project takes Caltech’s success in ground-based astronomy to
the next level of ambition,” Ellis says. “The TMT will also build
logically on the successful demonstration of the segmented primary
mirrors of the Keck telescopes, a major innovation at the time but
now recognized as the only route to making a primary mirror of this

Caltech is currently in the process of hiring a project manager to
lead the technical effort for the TMT.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation was created in November 2000
with a multibillion-dollar contribution from its founders. The
mission of the Foundation is to seek and develop outcome-based
projects that will improve the quality of life for future
generations. The majority of the Foundation’s grant making concerns
large-scale initiatives in four general program areas: the
environment, higher education, science, and San Francisco Bay Area