“Both projects finally woke up to the fact they are being creamed by the European 39-meter,” said Matt Mountain, the president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which manages the national observatory and other astronomical facilities for the government.
Dr. Silva and others, most notably Dr. Mountain, concluded that the two projects would have a better chance of success if they joined forces and put forward a unified science case.
“A bigger umbrella would work better,” Dr. Silva said in an interview.
Without a plan, he pointed out, American astronomers were facing the looming possibility of not having access to the largest telescope on Earth — after a century of dominance with telescopes like the 200-inch on Palomar Mountain in California.
The situation is reminiscent of the plight of American particle physicists, who ceded leadership in high energy physics a quarter century ago when the Superconducting Supercollider was canceled, he said. CERN then built the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which has been the center of physics ever since.
If the Thirty Meter and Giant Magellan telescopes do not reach fruition, Dr. Silva said in an email, American astronomers could still participate in European-led projects in Chile. “But at the very least, that’s a significant psychological line to cross for U.S. astronomy,” he noted.
The plan would entail identifying “key science programs,” involving subjects or exoplanets or dark energy that could be pursued with both United States telescopes in a coordinated “big data” kind of way. The national observatory would control the observing time.