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Which telescopes could lose out in astronomy's big budget crunch?

Federal budget pressures in the US could force the organization that runs publicly funded observatories to divest itself of six telescopes. The list points to new priorities in astronomy. 

By Staff writer / August 23, 2012

This 1998 file photo shows the 4-meter telescope on the top of Kitt Peak west of Tucson, Ariz., as storm clouds pass overhead.

David Sanders/Arizona Daily Star/AP/File

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

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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.

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