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Italy Lacks Money to Interpret Data From New Telescope in Chile

29 August 2011 1:58 pm
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ESO/G. Lombardi

ORVIETO, ITALY—After spending €15 million to help build a powerful survey telescope in Chile, Italy doesn't have the €250,000 a year needed to analyze the exquisite data that the telescope has begun to collect.

With a diameter of 2.6 meters and a giant 268-megapixel camera, the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) is the largest telescope in the world specifically designed to survey the skies in visible light. The newest addition to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), it is adjacent to the Very Large Telescope (VLT), four 8.2-meter optical telescopes at Cerro Paranal in Chile. A joint venture between the Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy—that is part of the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF)—and ESO, it began capturing its first pictures in June.

But Italy might not be able to harvest the fruits of its investment. "We need to find €250,000 a year to pay at least four mathematicians and some computers" to process the data coming from the telescope, says Massimo Capaccioli, an astrophysicist at University of Naples Federico II and a champion of the VST program.

With a field of view twice as broad as the full moon, VST is expected to further understanding of dark matter and the nature of dark energy as part of its exploration of the early universe. Italian astronomers now receive 10% of the observation time, a figure that will jump to 20% in 2017. But they will be hard-pressed to make discoveries if they can't interpret what they have observed.

"It is a very sad situation for Italy," says Bruno Leibundgut, ESO's science director. "The data reductions for such massive surveys are indeed complicated and require sufficient resources." Leibundgut hopes that Italian scientists might be able to use the reduction data centers in Cambridge, U.K., and in Groningen, Netherlands, if their government fails to find the money. And Giovanni Bignami, the newly appointed INAF director, says that "I'm confident that the money will arrive. It would be such a spectacular mistake not to fund this research … after such an effort has been put into the building of the VST."

The budget shortfall is just the latest setback for the project. Construction was delayed for 4 years after the original VST mirror was destroyed during delivery to Chile and had to be rebuilt, says Capaccioli, and some of the telescope's mechanical parts had to be rebuilt after they rusted during shipment. But Capaccioli says that the instrument is now working wonderfully and that Italian scientists must not disappoint their colleagues by squandering valuable observing time.