07/24/2012 06:57 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Reaches a Major Milestone in Space Exploration

On July 18 the National Science Foundation announced a major milestone in the development of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and, therefore, in future space exploration. It announced that "[w]ith approval from the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Director will advance the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) to the final design stage. This action permits the NSF Director to include funds for LSST construction in a future budget request." In other words, the NSF is now making the funding of the construction of the LSST a priority.

That's great news for space exploration, given that the LSST is, as the NSF describes it:

...a proposed 8-meter wide-field survey telescope that will survey the entire sky approximately twice per week, delivering a large and comprehensive data set that will transform astronomical research. The LSST was the first-ranked ground-based large initiative in the 2010 National Academy of Sciences decadal survey in astronomy and astrophysics. The project is a partnership among the NSF, the Department of Energy (DOE) and a number of private contributors.

The LSST will be built in the mountains of Chile for the best positioning possible, but it is of enormous importance to the U.S. scientific community and has the potential to enhance dramatically our understanding of space. That's why so many renowned U.S. institutions have long been part of the consortium advancing the LSST. That group includes Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the foundation that I lead, which is the oldest foundation in America devoted wholly to science.

My predecessor at Research Corporation for Science Advancement, Dr. John P. Schaefer, longtime Chair of the nonprofit LSST Corporation, which oversees the initiative, was as much responsible as anyone for conceiving of and advocating for the LSST from the outset and deserves special recognition at this time. The leadership of the LSST Corporation, which is based in Tucson, Ariz., now includes current Chair David MacFarlane, President Sidney Wolff, and the Board of Directors, on which I'm honored to serve. Other institutions represented on the Board include Carnegie Mellon University, the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Princeton University, Purdue University, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Arizona, the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of Chile, and the University of Washington.

As the LSST Corporation states, the LSST:

...will add a qualitatively new capability in astronomy. For the first time, the LSST will provide time-lapse digital imaging of faint astronomical objects across the entire sky. ... The LSST will provide unprecedented 3-dimensional maps of the mass distribution in the Universe, in addition to the traditional images of luminous stars and galaxies. These mass maps can be used to better understand the nature of the newly discovered and utterly mysterious Dark Energy that is driving the accelerating expansion of the Universe. The LSST will also provide a comprehensive census of our solar system, including potentially hazardous asteroids as small as 100 meters in size.

As NSF Director Subra Suresh recently noted, "LSST will provide an unprecedented view of the sky while leading the emerging discipline of data-enabled science." The NSF continued:

NSF and DOE have recently signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding delineating the scope of the agencies' responsibilities throughout the lifetime of the project. NSF will be responsible for development of the site and telescope, as well as the extensive data management system. DOE, through a collaboration led by its SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, will be responsible for development and delivery of the large-format camera. The Republic of Chile, through an agreement with Universidad de Chile, will make available the observing site for the LSST telescope. The total construction cost of LSST is estimated to be about $665M, approximately 70 percent from NSF, 24 percent from DOE, and 6 percent from private donors to the project. The construction is anticipated to last five years, followed by a two-year commissioning period before the start of the survey.

American space exploration, built around manned space flights, fueled U.S. scientific and technological preeminence in the 20th century. Unmanned space exploration will be the key in the 21st century, and the LSST promises to be an important part of it. While it is, by design and necessity, an international collaboration, it will dramatically increase the data available to U.S. scientists and, therefore, the knowledge and leadership of our scientific community.

The National Science Foundation should be applauded for taking this important step and putting America in a stronger position to maintain our scientific preeminence in the decades ahead.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which celebrates its Centennial -- 100 years of science advancement -- this year.