Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thirty Meter Telescope Awaits Construction Funding

Here's some interesting background on what is expected to be the largest and most far seeing telescope in the world. It's called the “Thirty Meter Telescope” (mostly because it's thirty meters wide) and the facilities are ground based and not space based.

So why are we talking about it in a blog devoted to commercial space activities?

We're talking about it because the funding mechanisms used for this project can be used for any university focused activity designed to build facilities for research and this even includes research covering "'rocket science" or "newspace focused science."

These mechanisms also benefit entrepreneurs who should know about and be able to take advantage of them.

As befitting our case study, the Thirty Meter Telescope is expensive, at almost a billion dollars to complete although the cost certainly on par with projects in other areas (such as particle physics).

It's gestation and design has a strong Canadian component.

Ray Carlberg, a professor of Astronomy at the University of Toronto serves as the primary point of contact for people looking to learn more about the project and explains “Canada doesn’t really have a formal process for funding large science projects."

So what did they do?

"In our case, the initial meetings occurred seven years ago through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation which contributed 10 million to match funds from Ontario, BC and the National Research Council. Then the National Sciences and Engineering Research Counsel (NSERC) contributed a further 6.5 million, which included contributions from the Universities of BC, Toronto and Victoria and the project moved forward from there” states Carlberg.

US partners including the University of California and the California Institute of Technology who also provided matching funds and worked with the Canadians (by now organized into ACURA, the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy) on the initial design and development. Construction funds became available in December 2007 with a 200 million pledge from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation which was leveraged into a further 100 million over the following year.

"The US has pledged 300 million and we’d like the Canadian government to pledge 300 million as well to move forward with final construction,” states Carlberg, who feels the proposal is still at an early stage with the Minister of Industry but is moving forward well.

So have any Canadian businesses taken advantage of this potential commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to basic research?

BC based company Empire Dynamic Structures has. The firm is acting as prime contractor for the external structure supporting the telescope and expects to develop major follow-on sales as a result of this project.

It seems that the instruments used to measure the locations of each one of the 492 segments of the Thirty Meter Telescope and the actuators used to control their shape and position are also quite useful for tracking and moving people about safely as part of the billion dollar a year amusement park ride industry, a field which the firm has had great success.

Empire Dynamic Structures credits it ongoing success directly to the skill-set developed two decades ago while building the external structure for the Canada France Telescope Enclosure and perceives the Thirty Meter Telescope as a logical follow-on project to maintain the skills required for continued success in this type of work.

Other Canadian organizations benefiting from the design and construction work required for the Thirty Meter Telescope include the Herzberg Institute for Astrophysics (designer of the adaptive optics system) and Lyrtech (which manufacturers specialized computers to control the various mechanisms the telescope needs to remain pointed in the right direction) with a number of other companies likely to be involved as the project moves forward.

So what you've got here is universities developing platforms for basic research using their own funding mechanisms, but asking for government funding to roll out the final facility and providing strong benefits to businesses who receive the final contracts.

This is one of a number of models that space focused entrepreneurs should use and build on.

1 comment:

  1. Just a quick note that, as per the article at http://www.tmt.org/news/site-selection.htm the Thirty Meter Telescope will be located at Mauna Kea.


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