National observatory battles cutbacks, competition from space telescope

Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year amid a growing financial crisis that has thrown a pall over the future of ground-based astronomy.

Because of the recession and federal budget cuts, there have been layoffs and even the shutdown of some smaller telescopes at the peak. The observatory is getting enough money to survive, says its director, Geoffrey Burbidge. But he adds that there is very little room to expand. And without growth, stagnation and decline can set in.

Part of the problem lies in the ''technological inflation'' inherent in modern science, Dr. Burbidge says. ''It used to be you could go on the mountain to observe the stars and do the measurements yourself,'' he recalls. ''Now, you need sensing equipment, interpretive equipment, and people to assist you.''

That costs money, Burbidge explains, and money spent on hardware cannot be used to hire young post-doctoral scientists. As a result, many bright fledgling astronomers cannot find positions in laboratories or observatories, become discouraged, and eventually leave the field. ''By the end of the century we're going to have observatories full of big machines and old professors, but no young people,'' he warns.

Currently the United States has a vigorous scientific community that is certainly equal to the best in all areas, Burbidge says, but he adds that if funding continues to shrink, a decline could begin.

France has put a lot of money into the sciences recently and Britain and West Germany have always supported them, he notes. The Soviet Union probably has the best record of support, he says.

Kitt Peak receives its funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an agency founded in 1950 by Congress to disseminate funds for scientific research. But by law, the NSF cannot operate a research facility, so when it was decided in 1955 to establish a national observatory, another organization had to be formed to manage it.

In 1957, seven universities banded together to form the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which has administered Kitt Peak since its founding. Currently AURA membership includes 17 universities, and its administrative duties have grown to include the management of the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile, and the Sacramento Peak Observatory in New Mexico.

Once the decision was reached to found a national observatory, the choice of a site was the next order of business. Astronomers had long favored Arizona because of its clear air and the lack of high-density population. Kitt Peak, 6, 875 feet up in the Quinlan Mountains southwest of Tucson, was finally chosen.

But Kitt Peak is one of the sacred mountains of the Papago Indians, on whose reservation the site is located. Extensive negotiations with the tribe had to be conducted before permission to use the mountain was granted. In Oct. 1957 an agreement was signed with the Indians to lease 200 acres of the mountain, with an option to use another 2,200 acres.

Kitt Peak National Observatory became functional in March 1960 when its 36 -inch No. 1 telescope began operating. That same year work began on Kitt's 82 -inch McMath Solar Telescope, the largest instrument of its kind in the world. Conditions in those early days were so primitive that the only path to the summit was a dirt road that ran 5 1/2 miles at a 20 percent grade. Personnel and construction materials had to be transported up the mountain in four-wheel drive vehicles.

Although new projects at Kitt Peak have been slowed by tight money, they have not stopped. One of the current programs is the planning of the National New Technology Telescope, which involves an innovative method of combining small segments of mirrors to produce larger telescopes than are possible with one mirror. The projected size of the NNTT will be 600 inches, three times larger than the world's largest telescope at California's Mt. Palomar Observatory.

Not all of Kitt Peak's problems stem from tight budgets or the depressed economy. One of the reasons Kitt Peak was chosen as a site for the national observatory was its remoteness. But almost as soon as construction began, the Southwest experienced an explosive growth. Neighboring Tucson grew from a sleepy town to a modern metropolis.

Cities mean trouble for astronomers because of street lights. They are often mercury-vapor lamps that by their nature create an aura of light that hazes out the tiny traces of distant stars. Many of the major observatories have been rendered virtually useless by this ''light pollution.''

Kitt Peak's lighting consultant, William Robinson, has spent the last two years discussing light pollution with Tucson and neighboring community officials trying to convince them to use sodium-vapor lamps, which are much less ''blinding'' to astronomers.

Recently, Tucson enacted an ordinance to replace its mercury lights along major arteries with sodium lamps. Outlying communities followed suit, convinced if not by the need to protect astronomy, then by the lower operating costs of sodium lamps.

Some scientists say that no matter what efforts are made to control light pollution and to lobby for more funds, ground-based astronomy will be doomed by telescopes launched into space. Dr. Burbidge says it's impossible to tell now what impact orbiting observatories will have on the future of ground-based astronomy, but he feels certain space telescopes will not consign Kitt Peak to the trash heap of obsolete technology.

Rather, he says, because the orbiting facility will have a narrow view on the cosmos, it will require follow-up observations possible now only from the ground. The space telescope will more than likely begin a new phase of cooperation between NASA and ground-based observatories.

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