As the next generation of astronomers prepare to look at the night skies, who will build the telescopes?
KITT PEAK OBSERVATORY, ARIZ. — A decade before Lyndon Johnson declared his war on poverty, a small group of US astronomers gathered in Flagstaff, Ariz., to declare war on a different kind of poverty - a poverty of glass.
Giant telescopes of the day - the Palomar Observatory's 200-inch Hale Telescope, the 100-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson above Pasadena, and the 120-inch telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton - belonged to schools and research institutions that jealously hoarded access for their own astronomers.
To narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots in this burgeoning field, the group pressed for a federally funded, cutting-edge observatory that would give time on the sky to any astronomer with a sufficiently excellent research idea.
Forty-eight years later, the glistening domes that dot Kitt Peak stand as monuments to that vision of merit-based access.
Some of these monuments, however, have been closed; others have been sold. The vision is under assault. Unless the US astronomical community begins to treat its optical telescopes as a nationwide system rather than competing, exclusionary fragments, some researchers say, the long-term vitality of the US astronomical enterprise could be threatened.
"A healthy astronomical community that can extend across disciplines and across geography is good for the country," says John Gallagher, astronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "The more subtle question is: ... How much do you want to pay for it?"
"This is a critical time," adds Wendy Freedman, an astronomer with the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif.
Several factors have brought US astronomy to this point, researchers say.
The field itself has grown. According to a report last year by the National Academy of Science, during the past two decades the number of students earning PhDs in astronomy nearly doubled. The report calls astronomy "the most vibrant of the physical sciences in the United States."
As the population of astronomers has grown, sources for research money have changed. The National Science Foundation, which bankrolls the broadest range of astronomical research, once paid to individual astronomers 60 percent of the federal money going for research grants. That share has fallen to 30 percent. Much of the balance has shifted to NASA, which has launched several large orbiting observatories and numerous smaller science missions. Meanwhile, during the past 20 years, the NSF's astronomy budget has remained flat.
That money not only must support National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the Tucson-based agency that runs Kitt Peak and its South American counterpart, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. It also has caught the eye of privately held observatories, which have successfully attracted donors to pay for new, enormous telescopes over the past four decades (see map), but not the more mundane instruments these telescopes need to allow astronomers to make sense of the light gathered from distant objects. So private observatories are turning to the NSF for instrumentation grants.
Meanwhile, the astronomical community has outlined an ambitious research plan for the next decade, driven by a range of stunning discoveries during the past decade - from planets around distant stars to the possibility that the universe has begun another epoch of rapid expansion. Astronomers say larger ground-based telescopes are needed to complement studies done with NASA's Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), to be launched by 2009. Current designs call for an orbiting observatory with an 8-meter mirror.
To support NGST research, as well as conduct other studies, astronomers are calling for a mammoth optical telescope whose mirror would reach 30 meters across - three times that of the largest telescopes today. The community also hopes to build a 6.5-meter telescope with instruments capable of imaging the entire night sky every few days. The telescope would provide the precise maps required for larger telescopes to conduct detailed follow-up studies of faint objects. And it is working toward establishing a National Virtual Observatory, where data from all-sky surveys could be archived.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has commissioned a study, to be finished by summer's end, that tests the idea of turning all federal funding for astronomy over to NASA. Some astronomers worry that if that happens, astronomy research could languish if NASA's budget isn't increased.
Who gets to look?
Through it all, however, conversations keep returning to NOAO's role and access to glass.
"It's ironic to think that there are more 8-meter-class telescopes than 4-meter-class telescopes" like the NOAO's Mayall Telescope on Kitt Peak, says Robert Mathieu, another University of Wisconsin astronomer. Yet with the exception of the Gemini Telescopes - matching 8-meter class instruments in Chile and Hawaii - "an astronomer who is not at a major university with a major telescope has no access to that facility. And if you don't own your own 4-meter, the only access you have is through NOAO.
Roughly speaking, that includes 50 percent of the research astronomers in the United States.
"The real pressure comes from NOAO drawing a substantial portion of the optical astronomy budget" from the NSF to support their efforts, Dr. Mathieu explains. "There's a conflict between funding national facilities and funding instruments on the largest telescopes available to US astronomers. Money into access, or money into the science the large telescopes can do? That's a difficult question."
"Funding is the big problem, there's no denying that," agrees Jeremy Mould, who took over as NOAO director in January. "We need to move heaven and earth to help the NSF fill that gap."
One of the lessons from watching the Europeans emerge as an astronomy powerhouse, Dr. Mould says, is the importance of top-notch spectrometers, infrared cameras, and other instruments that have long since replaced the human eye at the business end of a telescope.
Indeed, putting public money behind instruments developed at a public observatory could give the NSF and NOAO leverage in requiring private telescopes to yield more time to the general community in exchange for high-tech help. Astronomers are circulating a draft proposal under which the NSF would get from 20 to 40 nights a year at each of several new telescopes to dispense among the general astronomical community in exchange for its support for new instruments.
Another approach is to develop partnerships in building and operating telescopes. Dr. Mould, Gallagher, and others see the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak as an example. The telescope, dedicated in 1994, is considered the most capable of its class in the world.
NOAO operates the 3.5-meter telescope for its partners - University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Yale University - and has a fixed portion of time it can allocate to the national community.
Moreover, Mould notes that the community also is looking for ways to open access to telescopes US universities are building individually or in collaboration with other US, European, and South American counterparts.
"Since there's no reason why the best ideas have to originate in the institutions that build these facilities, there needs to be some level of public access. It's the NOAO's job to provide that, and be the honest broker," he says.
Wisconsin's Gallagher adds that the national observatory has an R&D role to play in developing technologies and as the US contact point for international collaborations. "It is likely that the next generation of telescopes will be supernational," he says. "We're talking about a very small community with very expensive tastes."
Clearer outlines of NOAO's approach could become apparent next by year's end, when NSF selects an organization to manage the observatory. Since its founding, NOAO has been run by a consortium known as the Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy. But this year, for the first time, at least one other contender will be stepping forward with a proposal to manage NOAO, according to Wayne Van Critters, acting director of the NSF's astronomical sciences division.
Whatever the outcome, the NOAO and non-federal observatories have to find a way to work more cooperatively.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor