Kitt Peak seems to have nine lives.

A year ago, when the National Science Foundation announced that it would stop funding all of its telescopes on the mountain west of Tucson, there was talk of shutting, mothballing and even demolishing the facilities there.

Now the Department of Energy and NASA have stepped in to create new scientific programs for Kitt Peak’s two largest optical telescopes, the Mayall and the WIYN, and the mountain’s managers are mulling four proposals to run a smaller telescope.

The University of Arizona, which is one of the contenders for use of the smaller, 2.1-meter telescope, has also relocated a radio telescope to the mountain in the past year.

“This has turned out to be a very happy story for us and the astronomy community and certainly for Tucson,” said David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which has managed the country’s first national observatory since 1982.

The fate of the giant McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope still hangs in the balance as the National Solar Observatory (NSO) staff moves to Boulder, Colorado, and its operations move to a new telescope in Hawaii by 2018.

The NSF is zeroing out its support of solar astronomy in Arizona and New Mexico in the coming years as it builds the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope on Haleakala Peak in Maui.

Users of the iconic McMath-Pierce telescope say the continued use of the other large telescopes on the mountain and continuing support from the NSF for Kitt Peak’s infrastructure will make it easier to find partners to keep it running.

The NSO already has removed its SOLIS (Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigation of the Sun) instrument from the mountain as part of its reconfiguration.

Another telescope left the mountain in May. The 1.2-meter Calypso Telescope, privately owned by Edgar O. Smith, will be relocated to Chile, where it will be used by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) as a calibrating instrument.

That still leaves a large collection of telescopes on the mountain, with three of them getting new instruments and taking on long-term projects.

Lucy Ziurys, director of the Arizona Radio Observatory, said her new 12-meter dish, which saw “first light” on Kitt Peak last week, will be at the top of its game for the next decade or two.

The telescope was built as a prototype for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array — a massive array of radio telescopes now operated in Chile by the European Southern Observatory. It is a big improvement over the instrument it replaced, Ziurys said.

“It’s faster. It’s more accurate. It’s more sensitive, and it has the latest and greatest in radio telescope technologies,” Ziurys said.

She expects the new antenna to produce exciting science results for the next decade or two.

Lori Allen, associate director of Kitt Peak National Observatory, also foresees a decade or two of important science from the optical telescopes “defunded” by NSF.

The 4-meter Mayall Telescope, the largest on the mountain, will be reconfigured and outfitted with a 5,000-fiber spectrometer for use as a Dark Energy Survey Instrument (DESI) — a Department of Energy project led by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

That project has passed all its reviews so far and will be installed on the Mayall in 2018, Allen said, for a five-year survey of the sky.

The 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope is operated by the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and the University of Missouri.

NASA now plans to take over the defunded NOAO share of WIYN, becoming a 50 percent partner in the telescope and installing a new instrument for its scientific programs, said Allen and Silva.

Details of the project are still confidential, Allen said, but “it’s very exciting science.

“Four to five years from now, our two biggest telescopes on the mountain will be engaged in the most important and most interesting science — two of the biggest science questions in astronomy,” Allen said.

The smaller, 2.1-meter telescope attracted interest from four research groups that submitted proposals for its use by the deadline last week, Allen said.

Allen could not name the institutions because of confidentiality rules. Buell Jannuzi, director of the UA’s Steward Observatory, confirmed that the UA is one of the bidders in an email Friday.

Jannuzi, former director of Kitt Peak, said the mountain has had its ups and downs over the years.

“Hopefully a new phase of ‘ups’ is in progress for astronomy on Kitt Peak,” he said.

Jannuzi said Kitt Peak’s success relies on continued support from the people and governments of Arizona for outdoor lighting codes, the state’s universities and its entire educational system.

In recent decades, Kitt Peak has conceded its pre-eminence in astronomy to higher, darker, drier sites in Hawaii and Chile, where many of the current generation of large telescopes have been built and the giant telescopes of the future are planned.

The new instruments coming to the mountain will give Kitt Peak an important auxiliary role in that next generation of astronomy, Allen said.

Once the Mayall’s own five-year survey is completed, it can be used to provide follow-up on objects found by next-generation survey telescopes such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), she said.

“LSST will open up all kinds of doors that nobody’s stepped through before — all kinds of phenomena you haven’t really known about.”

Allen said telescopes are only as old as the instruments you place on them. “Telescopes never really become obsolete. Even small telescopes, if you can outfit them with instruments that fit a particular need, can have very long lives.”

Matt Penn, an astronomer with the National Solar Observatory, would like to extend the life of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.

He said the venerable telescope continues to attract researchers, and one of its three telescopes was recently fitted with the latest NASA infrared camera.

“A lot of my colleagues at NASA are finding ways to support it,” he said.

Penn said he is optimistic that the facility can continue to operate with a combination of scientific research, educational programs and instrument development.

“It is obviously a turbulent time and people are operating on a very high stress level,” Penn said. “The future is becoming more optimistic, but all of this can change. I don’t think anyone is sleeping perfectly.”

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@tucson.com or 520-573-4158.