Budget cuts target Kitt Peak telescopes

Gov't agency advised to 'divest' its instruments
2012-08-17T00:00:00Z 2014-07-22T11:19:14Z Budget cuts target Kitt Peak telescopesTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 17, 2012 12:00 am  • 

The National Science Foundation should "divest" all of its telescopes on Kitt Peak, according to a panel it commissioned to advise it on expected budget cuts.

Recommended for divestiture: The 4-meter Mayall Telescope, the largest optical telescope on the mountain; the iconic McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope; the 2.1-meter telescope; and federal involvement in a multiuniversity telescope called the WIYN.

The report, called a "portfolio review," was commissioned when it became clear to the NSF's astronomical division that its budget would not grow enough in coming years to fund new projects and maintain support for old ones.

"This is not a total surprise for us. It's a tough federal budget environment," said David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which runs NSF-funded facilities on Kitt Peak and in Chile and Hawaii.

"It's disappointing, but I think that we know there are various ways in which we can find other funding paths to doing various things," he said.

In addition to the federally run telescopes, Kitt Peak hosts 22 other instruments run by the University of Arizona and other institutions.

Tucson-based observatories had already braced for cuts.

Kitt Peak has known it faces the loss of its five solar astronomy instruments when the National Solar Observatory moves its headquarters to Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with construction of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

That move, which means the loss of about 70 scientific jobs in Tucson, is set for 2016.

The giant new solar telescope, expected to cost $300 million, will suck the funding from solar observatories on Kitt Peak in Arizona and Sacramento Peak in New Mexico, both of which will be mothballed when the ATST goes online in 2016.

In February, when the NSF released its budget, it said at least one of those facilities would have to close this year. The portfolio review recommended that McMath-Pierce be the first to go.

National Solar Observatory Director Steve Keil did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The report's authors and the NSF would not comment Thursday but scheduled a teleconference for today to discuss the report.

In the report, the authors lament the negative impact of their recommendations.

"We recognize that these will be painful losses for the astronomical community, as these are well-used and scientifically productive facilities. Kitt Peak National Observatory, in particular, is a mainstay of U.S. OIR (optical and infrared) astronomers, with over 800 open-access nights."

Providing open access to worthy astronomical projects is the mission of NOAO. A loss of 800 nights "is huge," said Silva. "It's not going to be replaced on any other facility."

In addition to the Kitt Peak facilities, the portfolio review recommends that NSF divest itself of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Very Long Baseline Array, run from Socorro, N.M.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory laid off 35 scientists and support workers, 20 from Tucson, when its "target budget" for 2012 was cut from $29.2 million to $26.5 million.

The portfolio review estimates a budget of $14.5 million by fiscal year 2017.

Director Silva said the ultimate fate of the observatories will be decided by Congress during budget negotiations.

The Mayall Telescope on Kitt Peak could continue operating without the support of NSF, he said.

An international consortium led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wants to give the aging telescope a $100 million makeover, outfitting it with the world's most sophisticated spectrographs and using it to answer one of astronomy's grand challenges: explaining why the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing.

As expected, the committee gave priority ranking to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a wide-field telescope coupled with the world's largest digital camera. Its mirror has already been cast at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab in Tucson, and the pad for its observatory is being cleared on a mountaintop in Chile.

Just last month, the National Science Board, the governing body of the NSF, approved inclusion of construction funds for the LSST in next year's budget.

The LSST was the top priority of a "decadal survey" of astronomy prepared by the National Research Council.

The decadal survey panel, astronomers from universities, observatories and institutions across the United States, had based its recommendations on the assumption that NSF's astronomy budget would approximately double to nearly $500 million by 2020.

Faced with more realistic projections of $245 million to $340 million, the agency convened the portfolio review.

Glossary

• NSF - The National Science Foundation, the U.S. government agency that funds scientific research.

• NOAO - National Optical Astronomy Observatory, an NSF-funded entity that provides telescope access to deserving researchers at facilities on Kitt Peak and in Hawaii and Chile.

• NSO - National Solar Observatory, which provides open access to solar instruments on Kitt Peak and Sacramento Peak in New Mexico.

• ATST - Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, a $300 million facility slated to be built in Hawaii by 2016.

• LSST - Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a wide-field 8.4-meter telescope equipped with the world's largest digital camera, capable of imaging the entire night sky twice each week, to be built in Chile at a projected total cost of $665 million.

• WIYN - The letters stand for Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale and NOAO. NOAO operates the 3.5-meter telescope on Kitt Peak on behalf of the three universities.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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