Kitt Peak funding won't evaporate, but it will shrink with squeeze on National Science Foundation

Kitt Peak National Observatory


National Science Foundation support for telescopes and instruments on Kitt Peak will decrease but not vanish, federal officials told tenants of Kitt Peak last week.

The NSF will continue to be the landlord at the Southern Arizona observatory and provide a basic level of infrastructure, even after it defunds the telescopes it now operates through the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the National Solar Observatory.

Before Tuesday's meeting with Science Foundation officials Jim Ulvestad and Vern Pankonin, David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, compared the situation atop Kitt Peak to that faced by mall stores when the anchor tenants threaten to leave.

Everybody has been contributing to the health and wealth of the overall mall, but losing the big stores has a greater impact on the overall economy of the place, Silva said.

In this case, the anchor observatories are run by the the two national observatories, and all of their Kitt Peak sites have been targeted for defunding in recent advisory reports given to the National Science Foundation.

Ulvestad, director of the NSF's Astronomical Division, said in an interview that the foundation would continue to be the landlord on Kitt Peak, honoring the agreement it made with the Tohono O'odham Nation when the national observatory was established in 1958.

"We negotiated with the Tohono O'odham and we're very grateful to them," Ulvestad said. "Our plan is to continue as the steward of the mountain for the foreseeable future, but we also have to do it in a different fiscal environment."

Two-pronged problem

The NSF's financial problem is created by shrinking budgets and more expensive responsibilities.

Ulvestad said the giant telescopes it now funds are much more expensive to build and run, but they represent the future of astronomical science.

His division's budget for the recently commissioned ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in the high desert of Chile, went from $18 million in 2010 to $33 million in 2013, he said.

The budget for the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope being built on a mountaintop in Hawaii will begin ramping up as it nears completion in 2017.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, being developed in Tucson for a mountaintop in Chile, will cost up to $19 million a year to run when it is built.

There is also demand from the astronomy community for instruments and innovations at existing large telescopes and for individual grants to researchers.

His division's budget, meanwhile, has flattened in real dollars and shrunk in purchasing power by $35 million since 2010, he said.

"The overall pie, made up of facilities, midscale projects and grants, is shrinking," he said. "If you don't make changes to reduce facilities spending, the rest of the program just gets killed."

Era of reduced funding

All of the tenants - including the University of Arizona, which has four telescopes on the peak - met Tuesday with NSF officials to describe their needs in an era of reduced funding.

The goal was to persuade NSF to "leave some money on the table" for basic infrastructure and transition as telescope users seek funding elsewhere, said Silva, of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, or NOAO.

NOAO, which is totally funded by the National Science Foundation, owns and runs Kitt Peak's largest optical telescope, the 4-meter Mayall and a 1.9-meter telescope. It is a partner in the newer, 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope with the the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University and Yale University.

The National Solar Observatory, or NSO, decided last year to transfer or mothball its Kitt Peak facilities, including the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the largest solar telescope in the world since its construction in 1962. The Solar Observatory also depends on NSF money.

A hard choice

A "portfolio review" ordered by the NSF when it recognized its inability to fund new projects while supporting those it has historically underwritten, identified all of the NSO and NOAO facilities on Kitt Peak as subject to defunding.

It also recognized the hard choice, saying the telescopes continue to do good science.

They can continue to do that without NSF funding, said solar astronomer Matt Penn, but the transition will take time and a little money.

Penn is particularly interested in saving the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. It couldn't be rebuilt today for less than $50 million, he said. It is still doing good science and doesn't cost that much to operate. Penn has organized a group of a dozen entities interested in using the telescope.

Jeff Morgenthaler, a senior scientist with the Planetary Science Institute, is part of that coalition and attended last week's meeting with the NSF. He said all the tenants were encouraged to come up with an overall plan for running the mountain.

The key to the mountain's continued financial health is the Mayall Telescope, said Buell Jannuzi, director of the UA's Steward Observatory, which operates four telescopes on the mountain.

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and elsewhere have a $500 million plan to retrofit that 4-meter telescope and install a multiobject spectroscope that will allow a five-year dark-energy experiment. The Department of Energy is expected to make a decision about where to site the project next month.

NSF told the Department of Energy earlier this year that it would participate in that program, said Ulvestad.

Jannuzi said last week's meeting was the first time he'd heard NSF officials talk about the future of Kitt Peak since it was urged to defund its telescopes there last year.

"The NSF was reassuring the tenants that they intend to continue to support the ability to do astronomy," he said, "so that's important."


• 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 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 or 573-4158