Which Telescopes Could Lose out in Astronomy's Big Budget Crunch?

Article excerpt

For astronomers in the United States it's dj vu with a wrenching twist the possible closure of some of the most heavily used observatories the federal government funds.

In 1995, the prospect of flat federal science budgets prompted calls to privatize or close workhorses such as the Kitt Peak Observatory near Tuscon, Ariz. That would ease the squeeze on other big-ticket observatory projects in the pipeline, the argument went.

Seventeen years later, telescopes at Kitt Peak, which avoided previous appointments with a broker, are again the budgetary bulls- eye.

This time the fiscal picture is far more bleak, and the projects in the pipeline are more ambitious. Thus, a panel advising the National Science Foundation (NSF) has recommended that the agency writing the checks for publicly supported observatories divest itself of six facilities as quickly as possible over the next four years.

The goal is to ensure enough federal research dollars to allow the US to participate in high-priority observatory projects through the end of the decade and have enough money left to supply research grants astronomers and their grad students need to use the new telescopes.

Aside from Kitt Peak's three largest telescopes, the divest-it list includes a gleaming white, 328-foot-diameter radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Greenbank, W. Va., facility dedicated 12 years ago and built at a cost of nearly $60 million. Four other scientifically productive telescopes or telescope arrays scopes are on the list as well.

Grappling with the issue wasn't easy, notes Debra Fischer, a Yale University astronomer who served on the advisory panel making the recommendations. Federally funded observatories serve as portals to the universe for a large number of astronomers who don't populate the faculties of universities with fiscal angels or pockets sufficiently deep to build their own observatories.

Still, "at the end of the day, I feel like we're protecting science for the next generation, even though it hurts right now," she says.

At their broadest, the recommendations reflect two fundamental but related changes in astronomy.

One is the move into what University of Wisconsin astronomer Jay Gallagher as well as others have called the era of "big science."

The easy questions about the birth and evolution of the universe from its grandest to its smallest scales have been answered. The remaining questions are tougher. They require bigger telescopes in space and on the ground to spot the most distant, hence fainest, objects. And they require increasingly sophisticated instruments bolted to the back ends of those telescopes to help astronomers convert that faint light into answers.

The bigger the telescope, the bigger the price tag.

As a result, "most of the world's major observatories are now international," says Dr. Gallagher, chairman of the university's astronomy department. Wisconsin, along with the University of Indiana, Yale University, and the NOAO, are the partners that built and run one of the telescopes on Kitt Peak the advisory panel has recommended the National Science Foundation shed. …