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Budget scramble at Kitt Peak: a federal agencies tighten their belts, several publicly funded telescopes are seeking inventive paths forward.

Although the future of the 2.1-meter telescope atop Kitt Peak in Arizona seemed quite dismal at the time, on May 22, 2014, I joined two "retired"-professionals-turned-amateurs, Mark Trueblood and Larry Lebofsky, for a night of observations there. Their goal was to capture new images of some potentially hazardous asteroids--having orbits that might slam them into Earth--so that dynamicists could better calculate those orbits.

At first their effort was stymied by clouds--what Lebofsky called "big, puffy, white things." So we hung out, waiting, and chatted about the state of observational astronomy and the impending loss of the 2.1-meter. A workhorse for decades, it was scheduled for shutdown in two months because of funding shortages. The instrument was one of only a handful of professional telescopes in the United States available to the general astronomy community and to highly skilled amateurs like Trueblood and Lebofsky. It was for this reason that both were willing to wait as long as necessary for the clouds to clear. As Trueblood noted that night, "I really want to get some data this last time."

The threatened shuttering of the 2.1-meter, however, was part of a much larger financial crisis for four scopes on Kitt Peak (S&T: Dec. 2012, p. 34). With the National Science Foundation (NSF) faced with a flat budget, as well as increased costs to construct and operate several new state-of-the-art telescopes, something had to give. And as explained by David Silva, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), when the NSF asked the astronomical community to list its scientific priorities using existing facilities, "unfortunately Kitt Peak came up on the short end."

Nor was the NSF alone in putting its NOAO and National Solar Observatory (NSO) Kitt Peak scopes at the bottom of the list. During this same time period Yale University also decided to withdraw from the mountain.

As a result, in 2014 Kitt Peak was threatened with some major changes and cutbacks, with several of its two dozen telescopes on the financial chopping block.

"The astronomical community is facing a situation where the majority of astronomers who don't reside or work at institutions that own their own telescopes are just going to be out of luck," says John Salzer (Indiana University), president of the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope's board of directors. "They are not going to have access to ground-based telescopes."

Building a City of Telescopes

Kitt Peak's astronomical history began in the 1950s. At that time a panel of astronomers recommended that the NSF establish a national observatory for astronomical and solar research as well as for education. Such a facility would provide American astronomers access to professional-grade telescopes, even if their respective universities had no money to build or maintain such instruments themselves.

Based on this recommendation and after several years of site research, Kitt Peak was picked as the best location for the national observatory. The NSF signed a lease in 1958 with the Tohono O'odham nation for the use of about 270 acres on top of the mountain and then created cooperative agreements with what would later become NOAO and NSO for operating various telescope facilities on the summit.

During the next half century, Kitt Peak attracted telescopes of all shapes and sizes, capable of observing in optical, infrared, and radio wavelengths. Some, like the 4-meter Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope and the McMathPierce Solar Telescope, were national observatories planned and constructed for the mountain itself. When completed, the Mayall was the second-largest telescope in the world, while the McMath-Pierce still remains tied for world's largest solar telescope.

Other telescopes originally housed at different locations moved to Kitt Peak to take advantage of its dark skies and clear air. Case Western Reserve University's 0.6-meter telescope, for example, was built in 1939 in Cleveland but was relocated to Kitt Peak in 1979.

The ownership and operation of these telescopes also varied. Although NSF leases Kitt Peak from the Tohono O'odham nation, it does not actually own or operate most of the two dozen telescopes there. Instead, NOAO, under its agreement with NSF, acts as the landlord--maintaining the roads and providing the utilities--while numerous other universities, partnerships, and organizations (such as NSO) do the owning and operating (see table above).

For example, the WIYN 3.5-meter was built in the 1990s and operated by a partnership of three universities --the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Yale--plus NOAO, with the four holding a 26%, 17%, 17%, and 40% share of the partnership, respectively.

Similarly, NSO controlled and operated the two solar scopes on the mountain, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and (until 2014) the Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun (SOLIS) facility, with NOAO again acting as landlord. NSF funds both NOAO and NSO, making the relationship even more convoluted.

Thus, despite being proprietor over this telescopic metropolis, NOAO fully owns only two telescopes there, the 4-meter Mayall and the 2.1-meter. For decades, both of these, as well as NOAO's 40% of WIYN time, were made available for serious research to anyone in the general astronomy community, including observers like Trueblood and Lebofsky.

Budget Squeeze

In 2014, however, this decades-long arrangement faced some major changes, including the threatened (temporary) slowdown of the Mayall and the shutdown of three telescopes: the 2.1-meter, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, and WIYN.

The changes first began with NSO, which in 2003 decided that it needed to withdraw from Kitt Peak. This decision was part of NSO's long-term plan, which recognized that for it to operate the new 4-meter Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii (slated for first light in 2019), the agency needed to find additional operating funds. Those funds were to come from the money used to operate facilities at Kitt Peak.

NSO therefore decided to remove SOLIS to an as-yet-undetermined new location, while handing off the operation of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope to someone else or closing it down entirely. Originally the plan called for a slow ramp-down of operations and funding, to be completed in 2019, so that there would be time to find another entity to take over McMath-Pierce.

In 2012, however, a NSF review by a committee of astronomers mandated that this ramp-down be accelerated and that NSO be off the mountain no later than the end of 2015. As a result "there will be a little bit of a gap," explains NSO Deputy Director Mark Giampapa. "We are working hard to find potential partners who could operate the telescope facilities during and after this rampdown period."

As part of this effort NSO has solicited the solar science community. They have so far assembled a tentative consortium of about eight scientists from both NASA and various universities who "are in the process of seeking funds" for the telescope's continued operation, he says. So far, however, this effort will only keep the telescope operating through 2015.

Beyond that date the future remains unknown. NSO is even looking into what it would cost to decommission McMath-Pierce. This decommissioning could range from "mothballing to total site deconstruction and reclamation," Giampapa says.

Crises and Comebacks

That same 2012 NSF review also accelerated NOAO's exit from Kitt Peak and the divestment of its telescopes there. The NSF reduced funds for the Kitt Peak optical telescopes to pay for operations elsewhere, chiefly the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile and NSO's DKIST, explains Robert Blum, NOAO's deputy director. Eventually these savings will also help pay for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope when it begins operations in the next decade.

The review also decided, however, that NOAO would remain as Kitt Peak's landlord, maintaining the utilities and roads as it has for decades.

The 4-meter Mayall fortunately had a new collaboration under way. Based on the 2014 recommendations of a panel of physicists, the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will use it to undertake a 5-year survey to study dark energy. The project will use the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, to be installed sometime in the 2018-2019 time frame. NOAO will continue to operate the telescope, but the Department of Energy will fund it.

As with NSO, NOAO's plan had been to ramp down its budget slowly until then, to maximize use of the telescope during this transition. The NSF review mandated, however, that NOAO also divest itself from Kitt Peak by the end of 2015. As a result, the use and availability of the 4-meter during the transition period will be greatly curtailed. "We will have to do some things like take some instruments out of rotation, provide fewer instruments on the telescope, and most likely go to longer, survey-type programs," explains Lori Allen, director of Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Throughout 2014 and into the beginning of 2015 the 2.1-meter telescope remained completely orphaned, however. Kitt Peak issued a call for proposals from the community, for anyone who wanted to operate the 2.1-meter. By mid-2014 it had received four proposals with serious inquiries from a total of six parties, but none could be finalized before 2015.

Thus, on July 31, 2014, the 2.1-meter was officially shut down.

In March 2015, however, a university partnership won the right to take over the telescope. The agreement was not yet public when this article went to press, but if all goes well, Allen hopes the telescope will reopen for research sometime this year.

Then there are the budget problems at the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope. In 2013 Yale decided that its research and academic priorities no longer included WIYN, and it formally pulled out of the partnership in 2014. This pullout, combined with NOAO's decision to cease its participation, left WIYN with a loss of 57% of its financial support.

Since then the remaining partners have been scrambling to find others to pick up the shortfall, with mixed success. In late 2014 they obtained one new partner, the University of Missouri, but as Salzer noted then, "We are not at the point of having filled our dance card. We are substantially short of that."

Early in 2015, however, NASA stepped forward and proposed that, in partnership with the NSF, it assume the NOAO portion of WIYN's partnership. The deal will have NASA build and install on WIYN an extremely precise radial-velocity spectrometer, designed to observe candidate exoplanets and confirm their existence while also obtaining their masses. NOAO will manage this program for the agencies and so will remain a WIYN partner. Its share of telescope time will still be open to the community, but with priority given to proposals devoted to this work.

In early 2015 NASA put out a call for proposals to build this instrument. In the meantime WIYN remains fully open and funded, available for exoplanet as well as general research.

The Future

Of the four Kitt Peak observatories faced with a budget crunch, only one, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, currently faces shutdown. There is a strong effort to prevent that shutdown or make it very temporary.

Despite Kitt Peak's improved situation, my evening with Trueblood and Lebofsky at the 2.1-meter remains bittersweet. While the telescope might be saved, it wasn't going to be saved for them. Under the telescope's new partnership, serious, independent researchers will only have access to 20 nights per year; the other nights now belong to those paying for its operation.

And although the larger national observatory instruments in the works will also be open to all, competition will be stiffer on these big-aperture scopes, and there will be fewer nights available. The question of where independent astronomers will go in the future for telescope time remains unanswered.

When he isn't watching astronomers locate dangerous asteroids, S&T Contributing Editor Robert Zimmerman is posting regularly on his website, Behind the Black, on science, technology, politics, and culture:

                                                              Date on
Kitt Peak National Observatory                              Kitt Peak

1. 4-meter Mayall                                                1973

2. 2.1-meter                                                     1964

3. 0.9-meter Coudd feed                                          1970

4. 0.5-meter Visitor Center                                      2003

5. 0.4-meter Visitor Center                                      2014

6. 90-mm and 80-mm Visitor Center/NSO                            2008

7. 0.4-meter Visitor Center                                      2006

Planetary Science Inst., Western Kentucky University,
S. Carolina State, Villanova Univ., Fayetteville St.

8. 1.3-meter (formerly KPNO)                                     1965

National Solar Observatory

9. 2-meter McMath-Pierce (main)                                  1962

10. 0.9-meter McMath-Pierce (east auxiliary)                     1962

11. 0.9-meter McMath-Pierce (west auxiliary)                     1962

12. SOLIS (Synoptic Optical Long-term                            2002
Investigations of the Sun)                            (removed, 2014)

WIYN Observatory (Univ. of Wisconsin, Indiana Univ.,
Univ. of Missouri, NOAO)

13. 0.9-meter (formerly KPNO, operated by WIYN                   1960
for a 12-member consortium, no NSF funding)

14. 3.5-meter                                                    1994

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

15. 25-meter VLBA (Very Long Baseline Array)                     1993
                                         (10-antemna array dedicated)

Case Western Reserve Univ. Observatory

16. 0.6-meter Burrell Schmidt                                    1979

SARA Observatory (Florida Inst. of Technology, E. Tennessee
St., Florida Int'l, Butler Univ., Valparaiso Univ., Agnes
Scott College, Ball State Univ., Univ. of Alabama, Valdosta
St., Clemson Univ.)

17. 0.9-meter                                                    1960

Steward Observatory (Univ. of Arizona)

18. 2.3-meter Bok Reflector                                      1969

Univ. of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

19. 0.9-meter Spacewatch                                         1962

20. 1.8-meter Spacewatch                                         2001

Super-LOTIS (Livermore Optical Transient Imaging System)

21. 0.6-meter                                                    2000

MDM Observatory (Michigan, Dartmouth, Ohio St.,
Columbia, Ohio Univ.)

22. 1.3-meter McGraw-Hill                                        1975

23. 2.4-meter Hiltner                                            1986

Arizona Radio Observatory (Univ. of Arizona)

24. 12-meter radio telescope                                     2013
                         (replaced previous NRAO 12-meter built 1967)
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Title Annotation:Telescopes Under Siege: Kitt Peak
Author:Zimmerman, Robert
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Aug 1, 2015
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