Telescopes are seeing farther than ever before. What's philanthropy's role?

Last month, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) beamed back the first pictures from its vantage point in orbit around the sun, a comfortable 1 million miles from Earth. The new telescope has collected some amazing images (and other data) from deep space, showing more detail of the stars than ever before. Webb’s scientific value is, well, astronomical, but you don’t have to be an astronomer to appreciate pictures of galactic objects like the Carina Nebula, or to be excited by the new evidence of water and clouds on the exoplanet WASP-96B.

The JWST, like most major telescopes in astronomy, is a government-supported project — a joint collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. But over the decades, philanthropy has played a key role in the funding of important telescope projects and is continuing to help bring the next generation of even more powerful telescopes “on-sky.”

These current and future telescopes will, of course, expand our understanding of the universe — including its origins and evolution, phenomena like black holes, the search for planets outside the solar system and life beyond our planet. When it comes to philanthropy,

it’s helpful to separate ground-based telescopes — such as the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the many others that exist in the U.S. and around the world — from the space-based telescopes, such as the JWST or the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched into Earth orbit in 1990 and remains in operation today.

Backing observatories on Earth

Although space telescopes like the JWST get most of the press, ground-based installations are still at the cutting edge of astronomy. The Keck Observatory, for example, actually consists of two separate 10-meter telescopes that have been on-sky since the 1990s, and are still among the most scientifically valuable optical and infrared telescopes operating.

“Once an observatory is built, it’s all about adding more instrumentation and better instrumentation to continue to upgrade and keep that observatory viable,” said Ed Harris, chief development officer of the W.M. Keck Observatory. That’s one of the areas where philanthropy plays an important ongoing role.

Back in the 1980s, Howard Keck, the son of Superior Oil Company founder W.M. Keck and then the head of the W.M. Keck Foundation, gave $70 million to help build the two Keck telescopes on the Mauna Kea mountain top in Hawaii. Following that initial support the W.M. Keck Foundation remains a supporter. But in recent years, other foundations have provided the bulk of the observatory’s philanthropic funding, which augments major government and university backing. (Sometimes, university backing originates as government funding intended for the telescopes.)

Starting around 2015, with government funding flattening, the Keck Observatory began to focus on expanding its fundraising from foundations and individuals, Harris said. That support is increasingly important to the observatory’s budget and to ongoing updates of its telescope instrumentation.

Other telescope projects have also revved up their outreach to foundations and individual donors to fill in gaps in public funding and to accelerate their work. One such project currently under development is the Giant Magellan Telescope, a 30-meter class telescope (that means the reflecting mirror that collects light is about 30 meters across, compared to, say, the 10-meter Keck telescopes) being built in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Once completed later this decade at an estimated cost of $2 billion, it is on a path to be one of the largest public-private science projects in history.

One key philanthropic supporter of the Giant Magellan Telescope is the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

The late George Mitchell made money in real estate and the petroleum industry and is credited with pioneering the development of fracking. The Mitchells committed more than $33 million toward the telescope program, starting back in 2011. But the bulk of the funding for the vastly expensive Giant Magellan Telescope comes through an international consortium of 13 universities and science institutions in five countries.

“The Mitchells were one of the main drivers at a critical stage to get the project off the ground,” said Jennifer Eccles, vice president for development and external relations for the Giant Magellan Telescope. “Since that time, many of our donations on the private side have come via the consortium. These universities [in the consortium] have deep relationships with science foundations and private donors.”

In fact, just last week, the Giant Magellan Telescope organization announced a huge new investment from consortium members toward its construction: $205 million.

Once it’s operational — the expected timeframe for that is late this decade — the Giant Magellan Telescope will have four times the resolution of the James Webb Space Telescope and will be up to 200 times more powerful than other top research telescopes.

"It’s dizzying to imagine what it will allow us to see.”

“Few things are more exciting”

Funding for the basic sciences can be hard to come by in philanthropy, as we often note. Foundations and individual donors alike more often direct their charitable dollars to causes where needs are more pressing, like health and education. But Eccles suggests that these big telescope projects have a bit of an advantage among the sciences as magnets for donor dollars, appealing as they do to the sense of awe and excitement so many feel when they see the photos or contemplate those big questions about the nature of the universe.

“We have a strong donor community at the major gift level,” Eccles said. “It’s ultimately a very compelling project, and it’s exciting to be associated with these discoveries.”

Among well-known funders of basic science, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has been a notable supporter of telescope projects. The foundation has given more than $200 million toward the ongoing construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, another next-generation large telescope that will signify an exponential leap in scientists’ ability to see into space. That project is also overseen by an international consortium which includes American, Canadian and Chinese universities, and funding from science agencies in India and Japan. When completed, the Thirty Meter Telescope will be able to detect objects 200 times fainter than currently operating powerful telescopes can detect.

The Moore Foundation is also directing some funding to space-based telescopes. It is, of course, extremely expensive to rocket complex scientific instruments into orbit and operate them — that’s a task that requires government money.

For example, the James Webb Space Telescope cost around $10 billion and took 30 years, a price tag and timeframe that would challenge even the world’s largest philanthropies. But space may be getting cheaper, said Gary Greenburg, program officer at Moore.

Technological advances in optics and the development of tiny, relatively inexpensive satellites could drive the development of more space-based telescopes and astronomical devices, Greenburg said. This is one area where Moore is hoping to advance the field of space-based telescopes.

“I would say that my funding is catalytic, and seed funding to get projects off the ground, knowing that in the future, they may be too expensive for the Moore Foundation, but would be at the point where either other funders or NASA could come in,” Greenburg said.

That funding includes grants to spur the development of new types of optics and lenses that could enable the construction of new, physically small refracting telescopes — as opposed to reflecting telescopes like the JWST — that could nevertheless provide powerful resolution. Greenburg has also funded work toward lunar-based telescopes, which would also have the advantage of being above the Earth’s atmosphere.

Numerous other foundations also support telescope projects — another to note is the John Templeton Foundation. Those familiar with Templeton’s work will not be shocked to hear that it has directed money toward the Vera Rubin Observatory, also known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which stands on a mountaintop in Chile. Templeton is also a supporter of the Black Hole Initiative, the network of telescopes that in 2019 captured that famous first orange-donut image of a black hole.

Like the fundraisers at the Keck Observatory and the Giant Magellan Telescope, Greenburg believes the telescope field will always be able to rely on philanthropy to some extent.

“Few things are more exciting to the layman than these incredible photos of space that no human has ever seen until two weeks ago,” he said. “So in a way, it’s a branch of science that I think that the average person and the average philanthropist is willing to support because they get it on a visceral level.”

For additional information on CGMF's involvement and the Giant Magellan Telescope, please review the following links:

The Giant Magellan Consortium

Billionaires are Privatizing American Science

William J. Broad | The New York Times  | March 15, 2014

The enormous 12-story Magellan telescope, the most powerful ever, receives an additional $205 million in funding

Christopher Carbone | Daily Mail | August 8, 2022


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