Project Management Institute

Taking the long view

telescope project leaders around the world are reaching for the stars -- and coping with earthly limitations


Outer reaches of space will soon seem a bit closer:
Organizations are rolling out massive telescope projects of a scale and scope never before seen. “It is indeed a golden age of astronomy,” says Patrick McCarthy, PhD, interim president, Giant Magellan Telescope Organization, Pasadena, California, USA.

The biggest building boom in the history of astronomy spans the globe—and is pushing into uncharted technological territory. A project team in Guizhou, China, for example, is set to complete work on the Five-Hundred-Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), which as the world's largest radio telescope will be capable of detecting radio signals from tens of billions of light years away.


“Mauna Kea is arguably the best astronomical observing site in the Northern Hemisphere.”

—Guenther Hasinger, PhD, University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

Because of their physical size, settling on telescope projects’ respective locations has proven an arduous process—and in some cases, capsized project plans. Budget overruns and schedule delays, often stemming from implementing cutting-edge technology, have also cropped up. A team at NASA is 20 years into work on the more than US$8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope with 100 times more sensitivity to light. The project is the organization's “biggest, most complex and most expensive science mission ... ever attempted,” Science magazine reported. Yet the U.S. Congress nearly canceled funding over cost overrun concerns.

Astronomers behind the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) favored Chile's Atacama Desert for the same reason that other, smaller telescopes have flocked there: The mountainous region's elevation, lack of light pollution and low levels of rainfall mean crystal-clear skies ideal for stargazing. Yet project managers have their own reason to rejoice over the site location: fewer local stakeholders to contend with.

In more crowded locales, residents have complicated telescope projects. To achieve FAST's “first light” by the end of the year, as planned, the Chinese government plans to relocate nearly 10,000 residents who might interfere with the telescope's electromagnetism. (Residents will receive CNY12,000 as compensation.) In the U.S. state of Hawaii, stakeholder challenges have halted a project indefinitely. In December, the state Supreme Court rescinded the construction permit for the US$1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project following a number of high-profile protests. Local residents, many of whom view the site as sacred ground, blocked access roads to the construction site and camped out for days near the summit of Mauna Kea, where the telescope would be built.

“Mauna Kea is arguably the best astronomical observing site in the Northern Hemisphere,” says Guenther Hasinger, PhD, director of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. More than a dozen smaller observatories already call the summit home.

While residents had previously protested smaller telescope projects in the state, the size and intensity of the TMT protests took the project team by surprise. “Over many years, the TMT and the University of Hawaii have engaged very constructively with the community, but we were never able to convince all sectors of the community,” Dr. Hasinger says. In hindsight, he says, the project team probably could have done more to put the TMT's size and location in better context with existing observatories.

The solution? The project team pivoted in a big way. In March, a team traveled to India to begin gauging the feasibility of selecting a new site.

Comet-Sized Risk Registers

But telescope projects face more than just stakeholder opposition. The combination of long-term schedules and first-of-its-kind technology means that both schedule management and cost controlling must be dynamic, says Dr. McCarthy. “We see our highest risks in the fabrication of the large primary mirrors at the heart of the GMT,” he says. “They're the most challenging large optics ever produced.” Fabrication of the first off-axis mirror began in November 2005, and the project team had one of seven mirrors complete and three others under development as of April 2016.


Cosmic Scopes

A peek at five big telescope projects underway


Location: Cerro Armazones, Atacama Desert, Chile

Highlight: The world's largest optical/near-infrared telescope

Budget: €1 billion

Planned completion: 2024


Location: Las Campanas Observatory, Atacama Desert, Chile

Highlight: Seven segmented mirrors, each 8.4 meters (27.6 feet) in diameter

Budget: US$1 billion

Planned completion: 2024


Location: Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA, but alternatives are now being explored.

Highlight: A 30-meter (98-foot) wide aperture

Budget: US$1.2 billion

Planned completion: 2024


Location: Outer space

Highlight: 100 times more sensitive to light than the Hubble Space Telescope

Budget: US$8.8 billion

Planned completion: 2018 (originally 2014)


Location: Guizhou, China

Highlight: The world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope

Budget: CNY700 million

Planned completion: September 2016

When fabrication issues cropped up, he says, the team creatively flexed the schedule. “We adjusted our on-site construction ramp-up accordingly, so as to avoid large personnel costs associated with the timing of deliverables to the observatory site.”

On the E-ELT, the program was approved in 2012, but the green light for the start of construction didn't come until two years later. During this lull in activity, “it was difficult to maintain the cohesion of the team,” says Roberto Tamai, PhD, program manager, E-ELT, Munich, Germany. But rather than let the team languish in idle mode, proactive project managers used the time to refine their plan. “We made further progress with the internal design and prototypes of key elements, which will help us mitigate risks.”

That savvy project management will help bring the telescope to first light as close to plan as possible. The ultimate benefits to humankind are incalculable: “The E-ELT will be the first telescope that could enable us to identify life beyond the solar system,” says Dr. Tamai. “It may revolutionize our perception of the universe, much as Galileo's telescope did 400 years ago.” —Kate Rockwood

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