The National Science Foundation has agreed to support the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy to manage the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope construction project, with a budget of up to $473 million. The announcement caps more than 10 years of developing, planning and reviewing of the LSST concept.
"It's very gratifying to see NSF move forward with this funding," said J. Anthony Tyson, distinguished professor of physics at the University of California, Davis, and chief scientist for the LSST project. "LSST is the premiere instrument for exploring new physics, for exploring the 'dark sector' of the universe. It will let us explore the cosmos in a new way."
The LSST is designed to image the entire night sky every three nights for 10 years, producing 15 terabytes of data per night. Project designers aim to have this data freely available online within a minute of imaging. The telescope is now expected to see "first light" in 2019 and begin full science operations in 2022.
For Tyson, it's the culmination of almost two decades of effort.
"It was apparent to us many years ago that what we needed to do to fully understand the universe was to make a huge survey that went out to the faintest objects over a very wide range of colors and wavelengths, and make a motion picture, effectively, to look at things that move and change in brightness," he said.
At the time, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey came closest, but still fell short of Tyson's goals. Advances especially in digital camera technology and computing power have steadily put the LSST within reach.
"For me, the greatest fun in science is when we know there is something really new around the corner, something we don't understand," Tyson said. "Here we know that our model of the universe is incomplete -- 95 percent of the universe is made of stuff we don't know anything about. That's interesting."
The LSST is the top-ranked large-scale, ground-based project for the next decade as recommended by the National Research Council’s Astronomy and Astrophysics decadal survey in 2010. NSF is the lead agency responsible for the telescope and site, education and outreach, and the data management system, and the Department of Energy providing the camera and related instrumentation. Both agencies expect to support postconstruction operation of the observatory.
By creating a moving image of the sky, LSST will allow astronomers to detect comets, asteroids, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts and other fast-moving or changing objects. It will give insight into the beginnings of the solar system. But most significantly, it will map the distribution of "dark matter," the invisible material that makes up about a quarter of the known universe, by looking for distortions of light from background objects. It will also give insights into “dark energy,” the mysterious force that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
The early development of LSST was supported by the LSST Corporation, a nonprofit consortium of universities and other research institutions, including UC Davis. Fabrication of the major mirror components for LSST is already underway, thanks to private funding received from the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Foundation for Arts and Sciences, Bill Gates, and other individuals. Receipt of federal construction funds allows major contracts to move forward, including those to build the telescope mount assembly, the figuring of the secondary mirror, the summit facility construction, the focal plane sensors, and the camera lenses.
The Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, an advisory subpanel of the Department of Energy's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, recommended last month that the department move forward with support for the LSST under all budget scenarios, even the most pessimistic.
The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy is a consortium of 39 US institutions and six international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories. AURA's role is to establish, nurture, and promote public observatories and facilities that advance innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and educational outreach, and to diversity throughout the astronomical and scientific workforce. AURA carries out its role through its astronomical facilities.
LSST project activities are supported through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. NSF supports LSST through a Cooperative Agreement managed by AURA. The Department of Energy funded effort is managed by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Additional LSST funding comes from private donations, grants to universities, and in-kind support from institutional members of the LSST Corporation, a nonprofit entity with headquarters in Tucson.