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-
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
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
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,"
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. …