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Major U.S. Telescopes Face Funding Ax

17 August 2012 1:09 pm
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National Radio Astronomy Observatory

No green for Green Bank? An U.S. National Science Foundation advisory panel has recommended that the agency withdraw support for a number of ground-based telescopes, including the Green Bank radio telescope in West Virginia, in order to sustain funding for newer facilities.

Two prominent radio telescopes in the United States could face closure within the next 5 years if the National Science Foundation (NSF) accepts the recommendations of an advisory panel that looked for ways to cope with a dismal budgetary outlook for ground-based astronomy. The panel, which released its report on Thursday, says NSF must make some tough choices if it wants to follow through on plans to build new ground-based instruments such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

The Green Bank Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia—the largest steerable single-dish radio telescope in the world—and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)—a network of 10 radio dishes spanning about 8500 kilometers—would not be the only casualties if NSF follows the panel's recommendations to withdraw funding. A number of other celebrated telescopes would lose NSF's support as well, all of them located on Kitt Peak in Tucson, Arizona: the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope, the 4-meter Mayall Telescope, another 2.1 meter telescope, and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.

"These were very painful recommendations for us to make," says Daniel Eisenstein, an astronomer at Harvard University and chair of the 17-member panel that was tasked with the review. But if NSF does not take "decisive action right away" to plan for what is expected to be a flat or declining astronomy budget over the next decade, there could be disastrous consequences for the U.S. astronomical community, he says. One outcome would be a severe reduction in the money available for research grants in astronomy and astrophysics.

The gloomy news contained in the panel's report is in sharp contrast to the cheerful scenario laid out in an earlier review by a U.S. National Academies panel. The 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey provided the federal government with a list of ground-based and space-based projects that U.S. astronomers wanted to see built by 2020. When the 2010 survey was conducted, the fiscal future was looking a lot brighter: NSF officials believed that the agency was on track for a 10-year doubling of its total budget. As a result, the authors of the survey based their planning on the assumption that NSF's astronomy budget would increase from about $240 million in 2010 to nearly $500 million in 2020—a scenario that now seems unlikely.

In September last year, after it became clear to NSF officials that the anticipated doubling was in doubt, the head of the astronomy division, James Ulvestad, set up a panel to review the division's portfolio. The panel's task was to find a balance between ongoing astronomy programs supported by the NSF and new activities proposed in the decadal survey in light of the new budget realities.

The panel recommends that NSF start funding construction of the $665 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in 2014. It also recommends that NSF not waiver from its commitment to build and operate the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, as well as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which is currently under construction.

Even with the termination of funding to Green Bank, VLBA, and other telescopes, the panel projects a significant reduction in NSF's astronomy grants and mid-scale programs: down from the current level of $92 million to about $70 million later this decade.

The panel's recommendation to end the astronomy division's support for Green Bank and VLBA has already sparked protests from Associated Universities Inc. and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which are responsible for operating those facilities. In a statement issued shortly after the panel's report came out, the two organizations described the two telescopes as "state-of-the-art" instruments that have "crucial capabilities that cannot be provided by other facilities." The statement goes on to say: "Separately the two telescopes provide unparalleled scientific access to the universe. When their information is combined, the instruments provide the highest sensitivity and resolution available for any astronomical instrument in the world."

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