Combing the far reaches of space for new discoveries can be like looking for a matching sock in a dark closet. Now, larger and more complex telescopes, an astronomer's version of the penlight, have made many new discoveries possible.
But some researchers say that the pursuit of bigger, better telescopes may come at the cost of building or maintaining smaller ones. And that can leave researchers who rely on the small scopes - where major discoveries have routinely been made - in the dark.
"Extragalactic astronomy is one of the hottest areas right now," says Hugh Van Horn, the director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences. But to do it, "[Astronomers] need to study things very distant and very faint. This requires a large-aperture telescope."
Unfortunately, the wait for viewing time at an observatory that houses one of the handful of huge 8- to 10-meter scopes, such as the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, or the smaller 3- to 5-meter scopes, such as Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona, can be tortuous. And some of the smaller, more accessible scopes are being abandoned by academic institutions in favor of limited access to larger lenses.
Not everyone has $100 million to spend on a 10-meter telescope. Most universities have to pay for time on one of the large, privately owned or administered telescopes, or in some cases share the construction costs of a new one.
"Around the country, there are many smaller telescopes that are being mothballed," says Christopher Impey, a University of Arizona astronomy professor. "They're sharing costs by having 10 to 20 percent of a bigger one. There's somewhat of a short-sighted neglect of the smaller telescopes."
The newly constructed Hobby-Eberly, soon to be the world's third-largest telescope and located at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory near Ft. Davis, is one such consortium. Together with the University of Texas, which stopped scheduling and maintaining its smaller 0.8-meter telescope over a year ago, the telescope is shared by five major universities including Stanford and Penn State. Other telescope consortiums include the SOAR telescope in Chile, the WIYN on Kitt Peak in Arizona, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.
This consolidation trend is especially worrisome to amateurs and professionals who already have trouble gaining access to the big scopes. Currently, the odds of a proposal being accepted on one of the large telescopes are anywhere from 10 to 50 percent in some cases, according to the American Astronomical Society.
"Astronomers have always lusted for the ability to study stars in nearby galaxies," says Frank Bash, director of the McDonald Observatory. "But they haven't always had the light-gathering power to do so."
The majority of those who get access are professional researchers affiliated with major university programs that have time allocations on the telescopes already. Professional researchers are often discouraged from trying because of the arduous and subjective submission process.
Amateurs, who sometimes perform valuable research that feeds into the professional astronomical community, usually have an even slimmer chance of access, and are limited to the crowded national observatories open to the public.
"The only way I could get on one of the big telescopes would be if I had a childhood friend who said come on up and see what I do," says Fred Ley of the Antelope Valley Astronomy Club in Lancaster, Calif.
The trend also affects astronomers who may be affiliated with major university programs, but whose subject matter can only be researched on smaller telescopes. The larger telescopes are designed to see fainter objects and have a narrower scope. Smaller telescopes, with their shorter vision but often wider field of view, are used for studying closer objects. "There's a whole field of studying brighter objects that will suffer," says Thomas Flemming, a University of Arizona astronomy professor. "Some of the institutions that have been needed for studying the sun have already been closed."
Those who are putting their money on the future of big telescopes, however, say that new technologies have allowed more resources to funnel into building larger telescopes without affecting areas of research that rely on smaller telescopes.
Instruments like the Charge-Coupled Device, which uses light extremely efficiently and processes images digitally, allows much of the work done 20 years ago by major universities to be done by small universities and even amateurs.
"Some of the research can be done now at modest cost out of people's backyards," says Sidney Wolff, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories. NOAO, which manages some of the publicly funded national optical telescopes, shut down their smaller 1.3 meter and one of their 0.9 meter telescopes, and plans on shutting down their other 0.9 meter telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona.
Robert Brae is one of the backyard astronomers professors like Dr. Wolff are referring to. In fact, the amateur astronomer's Braeside Observatory in Arizona, 200 miles from Kitt Peak, is a member of the Center for Backyard Astrophysics.
"I take professional-quality data and give it to those who don't have it or can't get it," says Brae, who founded his observatory in 1976. "The chances you can get more than four or five nights on one of the big telescopes are very unlikely."
Edwin Barker, a University of Texas research scientist who sits on the school's time-allocation committee, is more optimistic. "If you make an exciting and well-justified case, you can get time," he says. "Maybe not all the time you need, but you'll get time."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society