Money for the Big Eyes

Since ancient civilization, humanity has kept its eyes on the heavens, and the invention of telescopes has only increased its scrutiny. As astronomers strive to see the universe with increasing clarity, telescopes have been getting bigger, better, and more expensive. The astronomy community is currently preparing for the next generation of ground-based optical telescopes: giant behemoths that will have mirrors of over twenty meters in diameter, set atop of high, dark mountains. Technological advancements have finally made it possible to create telescopes this large, and they will be able to view the skies ten times more sharply than the Hubble Space Telescope. Once completed in a decade or so, these telescopes will shine light on our most pressing questions in astronomy. However, with price tags of around a billion dollars each, raising the money to build them is a challenge. This thesis explores the technology behind the extremely large telescopes and the politics behind their funding. Telescope research began as private ventures, the Medici family’s patronage of Galileo being a famous historical example. Today, the story is not so simple, involving public governments, international collaborations, and endless fundraising. While over a dozen different extremely large telescopes have been proposed in the last two decades, only three remain as viable ventures: the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the European Extremely Large Telescope. This thesis recounts their unfinished story.


Fangfei Shen

About Fangfei Shen

Fangfei is a senior software engineer at Dropbox. Fangfei earned two degrees from MIT, a bachelor's in Physics and in Writing and a master's in Science Writing. Thesis: Money for the Big Eyes


Share this Post