May 25, 2014
The inaugural meeting of the TMT International Observatory (TIO) Board was held on May 22. TIO has been a legal corporation (a Delaware LLC) for about a month. UC, Caltech, Japan and China are members, with ACURA, India and NOAO/AURA approved as associates. The major action was a vote to begin construction. A budget of $78M in-kind and about $20M cash was approved for the year. We still need a sub-lease to get fully underway, but that is expected in June. The next TIO board meetings are in July and October, with the October Board following the ground breaking ceremony. This is a ramp-up year for spending and lots of challenges for the project management but everyone is excited to begin.
There is lots of pressure on us in Canada to resolve our funding situation. Certainly all of TIO is cheering us on, but, it is pretty clear that there are some very deep pockets around the table that need to keep moving with or without us to keep the total cost of the project under control. We need to get our funding settled by April 2015. If we are unable to become a member our current associate agreement requires us to leave the project with no claim on anything. That is, we lose the value of what we have contributed so far and are continuing to contribute. Over the next year NRC and ACURA expect to do about $3M more work on TMT, so although we have not fully stepped up, this represents a modest up-tick in our contributions.
The lack of a fully developed international partnership was the primary impediment to a Canadian funding commitment in 2010. That problem has been solved completely and then some. More generally TIO always understood that getting all partners to commit funds at the same time was not very likely, as desirable as it is from the point of view of the project.
Advocacy in Canada for TMT within the LRP context is ramping up to a new level. CASCA is developing some plans which will be communicated to the membership. There will be a very nice TIO display at CASCA, featuring various pieces of hardware including the first mirror segment, which is one I purchased (from the same Japanese manufacturing which Japan is now using) in the early days of the project. ACURA and the coalition for astronomy are ongoing contact with NRC and Industry Canada officials. Our industrial partners are finding that the message that we need to act before April 2015 is being taken seriously at higher levels of government. An important development is that there are some initial indications that some of the ACURA university presidents may become directly involved. They of course will want to understand the support for the project in their faculty, which is where the LRP is essential to unite the diverse interests of astronomers across Canada. Clearly the LRP is about more than TMT alone and we need to make progress on the early elements of the LRP to have much hope with the elements that come up for funding later.
This will be an exciting year. I am optimistic that the sharply focussed issues will allow a positive decision, following along the fairly long Canadian record of coming in just-in-time.
April 11, 2014
There has been a call for me to provide more detailed and more frequent information on TMT progress. Clearly what everybody wants to have is insight into the funding situation. That truly is unknown at this point, but will be substantially resolved one way or another over the year and I will provide information as it becomes known.
The main actions at this Board meeting were to confirm the timeline for finalizing company documents and signing them, which requires that contribution agreements be signed. UC, Caltech, Japan and China will sign by the end of April. India indicates that the current election will delay their process until August or September. Therefore there will initially be associate members: India, the NSF and Canada. The US working group indicates that it expects to have a draft report of the US partnership plan at the end of the year. The NSF will need to review that document. Once finalized, the NSF will need to decide on its next steps. The current agreement ends at the end of 2016, so the US community will want some response to allow continuous engagement and of course they will want to become members as soon as possible.
Those who have signed the documents committing resources will form the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory. TIO is a legal entity that will be able to accept the sublease on Mauna Kea. The first meeting of the TIO has been called for May 22. The main agenda item on May 22 is the First Decision to Proceed, which initiates construction. The planned first action on the mountain is to remove a roughly 50 year old road up a culturally sensitive cinder cone made in the first site surveys. This is almost the inverse of the usual mountain topping, which is not required for TMT’s site. Elsewhere mirror segments will be produced (roughly 60 are in hand), mirror support construction will begin and similar long lead items. In Canada although we have not signed the contribution agreement, NRC has indicated that it plans to continue work on the AO system, which will require some cash to purchase components and ideally begin some modest sub-contracts. The University of Toronto will support the work of the Shelley Wright, the IRIS (AO spectrograph) project scientist. The enclosure construction is not part of the DtP1 work. However, it is part of the Second Decision to Proceed, which is currently planned for April 2015. With our agreement, the project office has been requested to develop a contingency plan to ensure that the enclosure can be started in 2015 even in the absence of Canadian funding. The contingency plan is exactly that and everyone prefers that the base plan, in which Canada supplies the enclosure, goes forward.
The ground breaking on Mauna Kea is scheduled for October 7. Canada is of course invited, but barring further developments we will not be one of the corporate members formally breaking ground. This situation is deplorable, but, the more important event will be to be present at first light, which is a much bigger ceremony.
The work to better understand our funding situation is of course intensifying. The developments at this Board meeting help clarify the choices that need to be made and when they need to occur. ACURA will be updating its contacts in government with these developments and requesting guidance. The goal is to have some understanding of what Canada plans to do prior to the October Board meeting. Whether such guidance will be available is of course a choice of government. Other nations have been willing to allow various preliminary statements of commitment in advance of the full legal apparatus of commitment, which is good practice to enable the development of plans. And of course it recognizes that opportunities like TMT do not come along all that often.
The TMT collaborative board now expects that its work is complete. The next Board meeting will be the first of the TIO, a legal Delaware registered company. The next regular update will be after that meeting.
October 24, 2013
We have recently completed a TMT Board meeting in Beijing. The Chinese Minister of their Ministry of Science and Technology that just stepped down in the recent political transition spoke to us about the Chinese view of the project. In addition the leaders of the various collaborating institutions in China and leaders of the Chinese Academy of Sciences made opening remarks.
Coincidentally, the President of NRC Canada will be having meetings with his counterparts in China next week. These discussions will necessarily be fairly wide ranging over science and technology cooperation, but they usefully build the higher level bridges which are part of advancing TMT.
Most of this Board meeting discussed the many legal documents required to create TIO, the Thirty Meter International Observatory. In some senses these are reasonably straightforward but there is a fair amount of fine tuning to ensure consistency with partner requirements and taking into account current best approaches. The entire structure is designed to allow the best possible observatory to be built and for the scientists to most effectively use the observatory to achieve their scientific goals.
The schedule is now very clear to everyone. At about the time of the February Board meeting all Financial Authorities, with the exception of Canada, are expected to sign commitments to provide their share of the resources for the project. Canada needs to wait for authorization through a federal budget, which is expected in March. With the resources in place, then at the April Board meeting the current Collaborative Board will make the Decision to Proceed which will then create the TIO (and a revised governance structure) and approve a range of work to start construction.
In Canada there is now a very good basic awareness of the TMT project across government, starting from NRC and into Industry Canada and now to the political levels. With parliament underway ACURA is continuing its meetings with NRC and IC and planning meetings with the political leaders that will need to support our request. The Industry members of the Coalition for Astronomy are providing key leadership in this important work. Industry is essential to speak to the government priorities of growth of jobs and innovation. The simple fact that the pace of Ottawa meetings is picking up and moving to higher levels indicates that TMT is part of the discussion in Ottawa. We will need about $300M over the next decade to get our share of TMT built. Much of this goes directly to work in Canada to provide the enclosure and the first light adaptive optics system, plus smaller contributions to other instruments and management of the project.