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Changing times for U.S. astronomy: the budgetary writing is on the wall: the National Science Foundation doesn't have enough money both to operate all of its existing facilities and to build big, expensive new ones.

A telling moment for the future of U.S. astronomy came last October. That's when James Ulvestad, who heads the astronomy division of the National Science Foundation (NSF), delivered a bleak budgetary forecast. Federal funding for the country's national observatories, and for the community that depends on them, was declining--with no real prospect for a short-term rebound.

Everyone in the NSF's advisory committee knew what that meant. Just a year before, a 324-page road map (titled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics) had put forward a vision for astrophysics in the coming decade that would maintain and extend U.S. leadership in space- and ground-based astronomy. But to attain even some of those goals with a reduced budget, astronomers would need to tighten their collective belts elsewhere.

Now we know how those cuts will likely occur: by cutting off funding for six existing facilities, some of which are still producing cuttingedge science.

In August a 17-member task force, led by Harvard cosmologist Daniel Eisenstein, released its analysis of what the NSF can likely afford in the years ahead--not only the construction and operation of facilities at the four U.S. national observatories (listed on page 35) but also the money needed for investigator grants, new instrumentation, and other capabilities. Eisenstein's group wasn't allowed to second-guess the scientific objectives spelled out in NWNH. Instead, it had to figure out how to achieve those objectives, and then optimize the NSF's investments accordingly beginning with the fiscal 2017 budget.

The reality is that the landscape for observational astronomy is changing rapidly. During the 1950s and early 1960s, establishment of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona, and construction of several observatories on nearby Kitt Peak, finally gave all U.S. astronomers dependable access to first-rate telescopes. This model was eventually expanded to the solar and radio domains, and it worked well through the 1990s. But the soaring cost of today's superscopes has required partnerships not just between major universities but also among multiple countries.

Staying Competitive, Staying Alive

Even as construction bills continue to pile up for the billion-dollar Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST) in Hawaii, U.S. astronomers are dreaming about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the proposed Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT), which aren't even in the NSF budget yet. But they likely will be soon, so to create some budgetary breathing room, Eisenstein and his committee prioritized NSF's astronomy assets with an eye toward identifying existing facilities that could--and should--be "divested" by 2017.

"It's a very sobering thing to look at the budget," observes Eisenstein. "When it drops by 20%, that's going to cause reductions--and ultimately many peoples' jobs." With that in mind (and following NWNH's lead), the committee recommends a strong commitment to continued NSF funding of grants to individual investigators and to instruments, surveys, and experiments.

The committee's portfolio includes continued funding of ALMA, ATST, the Very Large Array, Arecibo, the twin 8.1-meter Gemini telescopes, and NOAO's two 4-meter telescopes in Chile. The committee also urged that the construction of the LSST start as soon as possible.

With all that on the table, something had to give. Eisenstein's committee felt NSF should end support for three optical telescopes on Kitt Peak, as well as the nearby McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, and the globe-spanning Very Long Baseline Array.

Understandably, many astronomers are shocked and saddened by the committee's choices. While the McMath solar telescope was to be phased out anyway (though not so soon) to make way for ATST, seeing the Green Bank Telescope on the list was unexpected. After all, it's the largest fully steerable radio antenna in the world--and it's only 12 years old. Managers of the GBT and the VLBA countered that both have "crucial capabilities that cannot be provided by other facilities."

The potential loss of the three reflectors on Kitt Peak, with apertures of 2, 3 1/2, and 4 meters, poses a different kind of problem, making it harder for young postdocs and graduate students to get real-world observing experience.

Timothy Beers, who took over as Kitt Peak's director only last year, is disappointed--and puzzled--by the NSF report. "They're going to trade away 700 to 1,000 observing nights per year to liberate funds for future projects, and that is a real change of pace." But he remains optimistic that the summit's big eyes will carry on in some capacity. "We're not planning on closing Kitt Peak National Observatory but rather to reconfigure it," he explains.

We have not heard the last of this emotional debate. Larger forces--within the NSF, the president's administration, and the Congress--will dictate the final outcome. "This is the start of a very long process," Ulvestad says, "and I can't predict where it's going."

RELATED ARTICLE: U.S. National Observatories

The NSF underwrites four federally funded facilities that provide unrestricted access to all U.S. astronomers:

* National Optical Astronomy Observatory oversees several optical telescopes atop Kitt Peak in Arizona as well as Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and the SOAR Telescope in Chile (NSF budget in fiscal 2012: $26.1 million).

* National Solar Observatory manages big Sun-watching telescopes on Kitt Peak and on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico, as well as the forthcoming Advanced Technology Solar Telescope in Hawaii ($11.1 million).

* National Radio Astronomy Observatory is responsible for the massive Green Bank Telescope, as well as the Very Large Array and Very Long Baseline Array; it also operates ALMA in partnership with other nations ($71.7 million).

* Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope ($5.5 million).

Senior contributing editor Kelly Beatty notes that the panel's full report, titled Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges, can be downloaded for free at
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Title Annotation:U.S. observatories face cuts
Author:Beatty, J. Kelly
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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