The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) received a boost today when Brazil’s São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) confirmed its plans to join the project. The US$880-million facility, some components of which have already been built, is one of three competing mega-telescopes that will study the skies in the next decade.
Approving plans reported by Nature in February, the richest state in Brazil confirmed on 22 July that it would contribute $40 million towards membership of the GMT, which is managed by a consortium of institutions in the United States, Australia and South Korea.
São Paulo researchers might not be the only ones to benefit. FAPESP scientific director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz told Nature’s news team that negotiations between the foundation and the Ministry of Science and Technology of Brazil were “well advanced to share these costs and allow astronomers from all states of Brazil to have access to the telescope”. If that plan goes ahead, the ministry will refund part of the costs to FAPESP.
Although a boon for Brazilian astronomers, the move could raise concerns for advocates of the Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is being built by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. ESO has begun blasting the top off the 3,000-metre peak of Cerro Armazones where the E-ELT will be based, but is reliant on funding from Brazil’s federal government to enter the main construction phase. In 2010 Brazil agreed to contribute €270 million ($371 million) to ESO over a decade, but the deal has yet to be ratified and remains held up in legislative committees.
Some legislators may see the GMT agreement as a cheaper way for Brazil’s astronomers to access a future mega-telescope, even though the ESO deal also allows access to existing observatories in Chile. However Beatrice Barbuy, head of the Astronomical Society of Brazil’s ESO committee, says that the plans are still moving ahead. She adds that they had stalled in recent months owing to the country’s hosting the FIFA World Cup and staff going on winter vacations, but discussions were likely to get underway again in August.
The 25-metre GMT, to be built at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, is scheduled to begin operations in 2020. It is designed to have six times the collecting power of the largest existing observatories and 10 times the resolution of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The agreement is expected to secure São Paulo a 4% stake in the GMT project, guaranteeing 4% of observation time for Brazilian astronomers each year, as well as representation on the consortium’s decision-making board.
The GMT, E-ELT and a third planned next-generation ground-based observatory, the Thirty Meter Telescope, proposed to be built in Mauna Kea in Hawaii, are intended to address similar science questions. Astronomers hope to use the huge light-collecting capacity of the telescopes to explore planets outside our Solar System, study supermassive black holes and galaxy formation and unravel the nature of dark matter and dark energy.