Dire Budget Projections from NSF AST: Your Input Needed

In his presentation to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, NSF AST Director Jim Ulvestad provided guidance on the NSF MPS Astronomy (AST) budget projections that can only be described as dire. The signals from NSF AST imply that some existing facilities such as KPNO (and possibly other NOAO facilities or sites) may be closed and some popular programs eliminated in response to the budget pressures, significantly altering the landscape of ground-based astronomy. As described in the Currents article, the possibility of drastic changes in the near term calls for careful planning and consultation with the community so that US ground-based OIR astronomy emerges stronger rather than crippled by this process. 

We have created an online community forum to enable such a discussion.  Possible discussion topics include the following.

1.  One of the NSF AST’s principles for budget decisions is to “maintain a robust individual investigator program to enable a broad base of astronomical research across the country” (slide 26).  NOAO’s open access policy enables such a program.  How important are NOAO facilities and programs to your research and education programs?

2.  Protecting funding for existing international commitments within a flat or declining NSF/AST budget means fewer dollars for ground-based OIR astronomy. Since AST’s budget is declining in real terms, some of these dollars are leaving astronomy all together.   What are your priorities for how the remaining dollars should be spent?

Please enter your comments below.  Comments entered below will be posted immediately. Comments sent to currents@noao.edu will not be posted unless requested. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Comments (54)

Concerned about KPNO

I have almost exclusively used data from telescopes at KPNO.  Is it really true that NSF AST would close the mountain?  That just seems crazy.  I know that larger telescopes are needed for new research like LSST, but they always argue that a network of 'small' telescopes is still needed.

What to cut?

Astronomy is a small field in terms of practitioners, but large in terms of scope.  I like to say that there are many more astronomy puzzles than astronomers.  This means that the field is rapidly expanded by small teams (and even individuals) working on many interdependent problems simultaneously.  Such work is very well served by Gemini, Kitt Peak, and programs like AAG.  As an NOAO TAC member I can attest to the critical role Kitt Peak plays in advancing the leading edge of astronomy in this country: these are dollars well spent.

There is another model, closer to that of particle physics, based on expensive, large facilities with more capabilities, and ambitious but more focused goals pursued by larger teams.  Obviously such facilities can also be used as general purpose instruments for a variety of small programs (as we do with Hubble and Gemini), but in general there will be more overhead involved, and a tendency to commit a large fraction of such resources to a small number of large projects with many team members.  

Both models can produce excellent science (both in absolute terms and per dollar), and they are in many ways complementary.  It would be a shame if we had to choose between them.  Is that necessarily the chioce here?

I encourage posters to read Jim Ulvestad's slides carefully so that we can have a useful and constructive conversation about priorities.  The primary tension I see in the NSF AST priorities (slide 26) are between a "robust individual investigator program" and the commandment to "initiate significant long-term reductions in existing facilities... to enable operation of... ALMA, ATST, and LSST".  

What reductions to existing facilities are compatable with a robust PI program?  Certainly not closing Kitt Peak.

Beyond that tension, I find the principles outlined in that slide well considered and worth following.  I hope the rest of the community weighs in on them, as well.

I would like to add that it is improtant that we as a community find solutions in a constrained budget environment while pushing (perhaps in vain) for maintained or increased funding everywhere, rather than point fingers at which programs should be cut.  If the only message that comes out of our community is a conflicting chorus of "Cut that over there!", then astronomy will suffer unnecessarily, severely, and across the board.  

Jason T Wright (Penn State University)

What can we do?

Here is what I read: 

1. Funding cut is inevitable. 

2. One cannot afford to cut large projects such as LSST and ALMA because of the existing commitments and the expected science return. 

3. The only option left is to cut AST programs and likely to close Kitt Peak and/or CTIO.  

If my reading is correct, then the only thing we should think about is how  research can continue without these NOAO run facilities. Of course there are still institutions (public or private) which can afford to run their own facilities similar to the NOAO telescopes, and many foreign governments also own support such facilities.  From science point of view, closing the observatories will not be the end of astronomy. 

However, this will affect the life of many astronomers, especially people whose research primarily depend on NSF facilities and funding. But I am sure people can adjust if opportunities are afforded. There are a few things  I think might help. 

1. Increase support for archival research and modeling. Eliminate propriotory period for all observations taken on large telescopes such as Gemini or ALMA. 

2. Find ways to provide support for observations using foreign/private facilities; 

3. Create more joint programs with NASA and DOE to support multiwavelengh investigations in a more consistent manner rather than letting people writting separate proposals to individual agencies. 

The above are just my two cents. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4m science is essential

It would be a collosal mistake and would be counter-productive to close CTIO and/or KPNO, for several reasons.  Public access to intermediate-sized telescopes like the two 4-meters at Kitt Peak and Tololo is essential to a wide variety of programs, and is essential to feed the science done on larger telescopes.

1.  Gemini is not a survey observatory, and it does not have a wide field-of-view or a versatile suite of instruments (I am thinking mainly of spectrographs).  Leg-work done on the smaller telescopes is crucial to select targets and do other prep work for science on the larger telescopes.  One of the roles of the 4m telescopes is as discovery engines, providing questions that can be followed up with larger telescopes like Gemini.  If we close them now, we will essentially kill public access to survey work for about a decade until LSST comes online, and even that will not provide any wide field near-IR (H and K-band) capability or spectroscopic capability.

2.  One of the main motivations for LSST is transient science.  Current transient surveys performed with smaller telescopes are already hurting for telescope time to obtain follow-up spectroscopy.  Public access to intermediate-size telescopes at KPNO and CTIO provide badly needed spectroscopy and multi-filter photometry.  To close these facilities now would severely damage our ability to learn how to do transient science, leaving us unprepared for the era of LSST.  We have a lot to learn before we are ready to drink from the LSST firehose.  Moreover, LSST will saturate on most of the nearby supernovae discovered each year, so smaller telescopes will continue to be an important component in this science.

3.  In its current queue operating mode, Gemini offers little chance for students to gain experience observing (except for some commendable efforts by NOAO to support some classical observing).  The public access to telescopes at CTIO and KPNO provide many nights of valuable observing experience for undergraduate and graduate students who might otherwise never see a telescope.

4.  Closing both KPNO and CTIO would not go very far toward paying for LSST anyway.  These older facilities are already running on the cheap.  Having said that, the single 4m at KPNO is arguably more productive in terms of science per dollar than both Gemini telescopes.  The huge loss in science would result in only meager savings to the overall budget.  This does not include the tremendous additional cost of restoring the mountaintops to their original condition, by the way.

5.  CTIO and KPNO serve as a base for a huge number of other facilities besides the two 4m telescopes, many run by individial universities or small consortia.  SMARTS, WIYN, SOAR, the Bok telescope, Spacewatch, MDM, SARA, PROMPT, WHAM, plus others I can't remember, as well a public outreach at KP...  The question is not as simple as shutting down the two 4m telescopes, and the financial benefit of doing so is not obvious.

I really do not see the benefit in the possibility of closing these facilities, and moreover, closing them would hinder the science we aim to do with Gemini, LSST, and other larger facilities.  They are too valuable for a diverse range of scientific projects, now and for the coming decade, so much more thought and public review should take place before NSF considers closing them.

 

 

 

 

 

open access is the key

I couldn't agree more with these comments.  The KPNO and CTIO 4-m telescopes are incredibly productive, and their high over subscription factors shows that they are much in demand.  The NSF has a large investment in these facilities.  Although KPNO and CTIO were allowed to languish in the early 2000's, recent reinvestiment (ReSTARS) is beginning to show.   A national observatory worthy of the name has to be able to do more than just give away a few nights on private observaties.   The alternative is to revert to the situaton in the first half of the 20th century, where you had to be a member of the club if you wanted to do forefront science.  Surely we deserve better than that. 

Access to small telescopes is critical

I agree with the comments above.  Access to small telescopes is critical for survey projects, for student training, and for small universities.  I am concerned that the very idea of shutting down KPNO completely is being floated, as it provides support for a substantial number of telescopes producing lots of excellent science.  

In terms of looking for savings, I wonder if we may be forced to look into selling off time, or telescopes, to private universities--either time on NOAO telescopes, or time that NOAO has been allocated on private telescopes.  Of course, the financial situation is tight at most universities as well, but some may have resources available and the ability to take advantage of a deal. 

Remote or Robotic Operation?

I agree with the previous comments about the value of these small telescopes at KPNO and CTIO.  These telescopes are valuable reources both in their scientific productivity (especially per dollar) and as a training tool for students.  It would be a loss to the community, especially in light of the Senior Review and ReSTAR findings, if these facilities were to disappear or see reduced availability.

Could significant savings be found in chaging the operational modes to remote or even robotic?  I ask because on Mauna Kea, three telescopes now run with no personnel at the telescope at night (the UH 88 inch, UKIRT, and CFHT).  All are of an age and size with the KPNO and CTIO telescopes, so would presumably not be that much more difficult to make remote.  On Mauna Kea these changes were sometimes drastic and painful for the institution, but in at least one case (UKIRT), they did save the facility from closure.

While I would mourn the loss of hands on time at a telescope for student training, I've found that the most important skills for students to learn are the planning of a research project and in the analysis of the data.  Remote or robotic operation would then still serve the community in the training role.

A shift of several research telescopes at KPNO or CTIO to remote operation could also be an opportunity for the community to generate some common standards for remote and robotic telescope control.  At the moment, it seems as if many small robotic telescopes each roll their own when it comes to control and scheduling software.

-Josh Walawender (University of Hawaii at Hilo)

 

Synergy - Past, Present, and Future

For my research, two of the most valuable features of the research facilities available in the U.S. are 1) multiwavelength observatories, and 2) a wide variety in telescope size and location.   The system of ground-based telescopes maintained by NOAO plays a crucial role in research programs, such as my own, that require optical+NIR imaging and spectroscopy.   Integrating data obtained from e.g. the KPNO 4m with data obtained from Spitzer, Chandra, and HST has allowed my collaborators to continually push the redshift envelope to discover and better understand galaxy clusters and massive galaxy evolution to give one specific example.  The success of this and I suspect many other science programs relies on ready access to the medium-size telescopes available in both hemispheres at KPNO and CTIO which enable us to probe the whole sky for those rare objects (supernovae, brown dwarfs, distant galaxy clusters) which can spur new science.  Without these telescopes, the forefront science opportunities afforded by NASA facilties such as Spitzer, Chandra and HST would be left unrealized.  The huge new parameter space just now being opened up by WISE through its sensitive all-sky mid-IR survey would remain out of reach in many ways for US astronomers, without the ability to obtain detailed follow-up imaging and spectroscopy using the ground-based telescopes at KPNO and CTIO.  

There are of course many worthwhile programs within the NSF portfolio which unfortunately seem to have to compete for the same dollars.  I do not presume to be able to judge if one is more worthy than another if push comes to shove.  However, I do know that it would be a great loss to the US astronomy community to remove a pillar of the US astronomy system such as KPNO or CTIO.  The result would greatly decrease our ability to continue to conduct research with our existing high-profile facilities such as HST at the world class level.  

Just as I did some 25 years ago, my graduate student is right now using one of the NOAO telescopes, learning how to do observational astronomy.  The broad availability of the medium-size telescopes at KPNO and CTIO are important to the education of grad students from a wide-variety of institutions.  Closing down one of these observatories in the next few years would likely lead to long term problems with producing adequately prepared astronomers in the future, and they are as necessary to achieving the goals of our decadal reports as any multi-billion dollar facility. 

Adam Stanford, UC Davis

Remote Observing, Keep KPNO/CTIO, Community Access

It seems to me that in assessing how we respond to this funding crisis we need to consider not only what facilities are worthy versus those that can be cut, but also consider the entire portfolio that NSF AST supports and where the money should and should not be going.  

It would be a tremendous mistake to close KPNO and CTIO, or even de-fund the 2.1m and 4m telescopes.  As some have already noted, these make terrific discovery engines and, if outfitted that way, can be a very effective complement to Gemini as well as LSST.  Converting those telescopes to be largely robotic would help; however it has repercussions.  One important issue we should not forget is that for the smaller, privately operated telescopes on those mountains (e.g., MDM, SARA), closing KPNO and CTIO would represent a calamity. Even though we in SARA operate our telescopes remotely we depend on KPNO and NOAO for some of our services.  We do not have the budget to maintain our own networks, keep a service tech on call at night, etc.  

Remote operations need to be considered for the Gemini telescopes, which are currently using an expensive queue-based system which, while flexible, has a high cost.  I would be in favor of consolidation of Gemini-N operations with KPNO, and consolidation of Gemini-S operations with CTIO, particularly now that the US community has a 67% role in Gemini.  I would also favor looking at remote observing for Gemini, as well as the KPNO 4m and 2.1m telescopes and CTIO 4m and 1.5m telescopes -- in the same vein as UKIRT.

The purpose of the National Observatories is access for the entire community, particularly for those who don't have access to other, competitive facilities.  The original "Why NOAO" proposal questions were intended to guard against observers getting time for the same science on both national facilities as well as private ones, e.g., Keck or the MMT.  By contrast, the current  "Use of other facilities" question is intended only to track how NOAO facilities are used to complement other facilities.   For the National Observatories to remain true to their mission these need to return to their original purpose, so that the impact of the budget cuts will not be disproportionately on the majority of astronomers who are not at schools with access to e.g., Keck or MMT.  In this same vein, we need to restore funding for TSIP, which was zeroed out in FY2012.  Without this vital program the community as a whole loses access to Keck and MMT.

Eric Perlman, Florida Institute of Technology

Keep up Efforts with the Public

I agree with all that is posted here.  The arguments for keeping KPNO open make eminent sense scientifically.  But economics drives the world and the comments of "cosmo" are likely to be closer to what will happen long-term than more optimistic scenarios.  I am not saying we should not fight - we must.  But we should also take stock of what we can live with.  

What ever we do, we need to think hard about Jim Ulvestad's observation on slide 11 that EPO suffers when funding is tight. Astronomers have to, and will always have to, convince non-astronomers and non-scientists that astronomy should be funded at appropriate levels. It is not an impossible sell and I think that, especially in the past two decades, we as a discipline have made good efforts to enthuse the public about what we do.  We must continue to do so, perhaps by giving renewed thought to how those who primarily research might better blend their efforts with those who primarily educate. If teaching is not strong, research won't be either. Not in astronomy where the primary product is pure knowledge and we are funded by the public simply because they love the heavens. 

 J. Ward Moody, BYU

Forget Sunk Costs, Protect the Core

I view this in the context of two principles:
1. Spending additional $$ in an attempt to "recover" sunken costs is folly-- those costs are water under the bridge.  The proper perspective is future spending and what this produces and what opportunity costs are associated with it.

2. Times are bad...very bad...now.  But, the biggest "risk" we need to prepare for is that this might not last forever.  Maybe it's 5 years, maybe it's 2 decades.  Whatever the time scale and even if the current generation of astronomers can not expect to work at the true scientific frontier or generate frontier results at the historical pace of the last few decades, we must sustain capability and continue to develop human resources for the time when things are better.  We must preserve/protect this core of our enterprise.

From these perspectives:

-We should ask how much LSST science PanSTARR can accomplish.  While painful, if the answer is a significant fraction, the difficult decision to divest from LSST should be considered with some of this funding diverted to PanSTARRs with goal of maintaining expertise, enhancing the PanSTARRS mission, and making data public.  This divestment could keep the critical NOAO mission functioning.

-We should reopen purchase of NOAO time via MOUs with Universities as tried in the past...perhaps through a modified Dutch auction.  Terms could be limited to 1-3 years to allow for flexibility.  This would allow us to empirically sample the private and state funding landscape.  Again the goal is to sustain the capabilities and expertise at NOAO so there is a preserved infrastructure for future astronomers.

- If we are to protect the core, we should also consider the painful divestment from TSIP.  This was a beneficial innovation that I hope it would continue some day in the future.  But if we are to sustain a vital core for future generations, building suites of instruments at (quasi)private facilities comes with a dramatic opportunity cost.  

-Breaking into subfield or facility factions is unseemly.  At the same time, LSST and ALMA our eating a lot of people's lunch.  The above divestments should be carried out in the framework of shared sacrifice.

- Relatedly, it is understood that there are commitments of various sorts associated with LSST, ALMA, and Gemini.  If those commitments are going to shred the core of the US enterprise, that is a grave cost.  It is then a fair question to ask which cost are we willing to bear: the cost of broken commitments or the cost of a lost core?   Perhaps protection of such funding to honor those commitments should be on the table as well.

PanSTARRS and LSST

Regarding divestment in LSST, I was disappointed to note that the Decadal Survey did not much discuss the merits of LSST after potentially several years of PanSTARRS operations.  PS1 is currently in operation and PS2 is under construction.  How much will PanSTARRS (and other projects) "skim the cream" off of LSST science?  That should have been addressed more directly in the decadal survey report.

-Josh Walawender (University of Hawaii at Hilo)

 

The science cost of losing KPNO and CTIO

I think it would be a grevious mistake to close the observatories, and particularly the 4m-class telescopes on these sites.   This is particularly true given the instruments that are coming on-line for these telescopes, instruments that have no equal in terms of capabilities on the private US facilities.  It's not simply a case of creating a pre-1960s situation of haves and have-nots, bad as this would be, and antithetical to the stated goal of NSF of increasing participation by underrepresented groups.

The biggest impact of closing the 4m-class telescopes would be to lose the science these telescopes are still the best at the world at.  These are not trivial capabilities for science:

1) Very wide-field optical imaging.  In the southern hemisphere, DECam+Blanco is immensely more efficient as a mapping and survey instrument than anything on Gemini (or even VLT!).  For the science projects I am planning in this area (gravitational lensing studies of low-z clusters), there is no alternative that US scientists have access to.   In the northern hemisphere, Subaru+HSC will exist, but US access to it will be very limited; SDSS and Pan-STARRS are great but not deep enough for many purposes.

2) Very wide-field, many objecct spectroscopy.  This is contingent on BigBoss, of course, but just as the case of DECam, NOAO has leveraged the unrivalled FOV of the Blanco and Mayall to obtain instruments that serve both for big cosmological surveys and more limited (but still quite large) astrophysical programs.   Some access to this is available via MMT/Hectospec or (soon?) LBT, but once again the efficiency gain of Mayall+BigBoss would allow infall-region dynamics to be derived for much larger (and thus more cosmologically constraining) samples of clusters.

3) Very high resolution optical band imaging over small fields (SOAR+SAM) and high-resolution optical imaging over wide fields (WIYN+ODI).  I include these because although they are public-private partnerships NOAO plays a critical role in their functioning.  Once again, the science that can be done with these telescopes is not easily replaced (particularly if ODI can implement local guiding).  Some of the science goals (weak gravitational lensing of clusters and large scale structure at high resolution) could possibly be done with a lot of Subaru+HSC time, but again this is not an option open to me or to the majority of US astronomers. 

I work (as do most US astronomers) at an institution that does not own its own world-class private facilities.  It's true that my institution might be convinced to invest in facilities to compete with the richest ones, but I depend very heavily on NOAO facilities to supplement observations at other wavelengths from space-based facilities.  In this regard, I suspect I am fairly typical of US astronomers.  Although I also depend on the grants program heavily (I have been primarily supported by NSF throughout my career), I rely on NOAO (and particularly KPNO and CTIO) just as much--for many of us, keeping the grants program sacrosanct while killing the facilities we depend on is just as damaging if not worse than cuts to the grants program would be.  

KPNO/CTIO critical as national observatories

It would be a grave mistake to shut down KPNO/CTIO. The US astronomy would suffer for generations if we would allow this happen. Being national observatories, KPNO/CTIO are critical to astronomers in the institutions that do not have their own facilities -- and they are not the minority. Astronomy is one of the few branches of science that are so rich in diversity and are still in rapid evolution. It is just unrealistic (plain stupid) to assume that a few facilities (albeit large) will cover most of the discovery space, let alone the entirety of it. The existing instruments at KPNO/CTIO are already great discovery machines. For my own research, the lost of Mosaic and NEWFIRM would be truly damaging.

Shutting down KPNO/CTIO will not save us much. I would argue instead that a better solution is to think hard what people can do to save money from LSST and ALMA. For example, these large facilities are easier to attract (more) non-US partners.

 

Proven results

The bright side of this issue is a forced look at the core values of the community.  While large (read-expensive) projects are on everyone's mind and for the most part still under developement, the ability to work on myriad unanswered questions with 4-m telescopes on the front lines without spending billions of dollars in the race to build the biggest telescope is appealing.  It is a back-to-basics approach that will allow the community to weather the storm rather than lament that new projects won't be developed for 5? 10? years.  More science objectives will be reached more economically in this decade with KPNO and CTIO 4-m telescopes functioning with their 'shovel ready' (in the parlance of economic crisis) instruments than to continue to pour precious funds into unproven and/or unproductive projects.  This should weigh heavily in the decision that we face about the futures of these facilities.

Cost Effectiveness

I think that science per dollar must be one of the arguments made for continued support or for modest investment in instrument improvements and augmentations (e.g. RESTAR). These projects leverage international investment and contributions from universities. Most universities are not positioned to buy themselves even a fraction of a 10 meter, much less a 30 meter telescope. These public facilities are the lifeblood for astronomical research at a wide diversity of US universities, not just the few rich enough to have their own private telescope. The statistics are there: the publications, the citations, the PhD dissertations are just the beginning. The direct science output per dollar for these facilities is very high. But there's a ripple effect to this access. The number of students, both undergraduate and graduate, being educated by astronomers who are *active* researchers because they have access to KPNO and CTIO must be huge. Any dean can tell you that a science program that does not have a quorum of instructors involved in active research loses its currency pretty quickly.

My own ground-based program primarily uses the SOAR telescope; with remote observing with SOAR I can involve any number of students in a given observing run, and I can even invite or allow locals to watch the start of a night. Enabling remote observing might reduce demand on NSF support for local support of observers and for travel to the observatories for CTIO (and even KPNO?), while still allowing students to collect data and learn how to make observations. 

I find the suggestion of leasing nights to institutions intriguing, but suspect the funding for such expenditures will be difficult for most universities to summon. I'm not sure, but suspect that nights are not as tangible as buildings and endowed chairs, even for universities that have cash at the moment. 

- Megan Donahue

I would share these leasing

I would share these leasing suspicions, but...

1) We don't know for sure, so let's find out!

2) The suspicion that there's no market is probably an assumption made at a leasing cost based on operational costs of something like 10^4 $$ per 4-m night; this suspicion may be correct.  But, clearly there's a market at some price (i.e., we'd all be happy to pay a dollar out of our own pockets for a night of 4-m time!)  A dutch auction or 2nd price auction would answer the relevant question: what is the price where there is a market for 4-m or 2-m nights?   Set an undisclosed minimum floor, and no ridiculous bids need be honored. 

 

Open Access

 

I agree. The small to moderate telescopes at both KPNO and CTIO are very important training tools for students. Closing them down could have a significant impact on graduate student programs at smaller colleges and universities without access to large facilities.  While there is little doubt that the gain from the programs proposed for ALMA and LSST will be enormous, we shouldn't fund these at the expense of other less-glamorous, more work-a-day facilities. If the smaller telescopes are not accessible the number and diversity of future astronomers (our "seed corn") will be detrementally affected.

Personally, I've worked with a visitor instrument on both 4m telescopes off and on for two decades, and the science program is well suited to these telescopes and cannot be replicated on any to which I have access.

 

 

Brian Mason

US Naval Observatory

 

Maintaining top scientific research in small colleges.

It is one of the strategic goals of the NSF to promote the development of a large and diverse scientific workforce. The existence of public access facilities like KPNO is critical to that mandate, by allowing students and scientists in small Colleges and Universities to carry on even modest observing programs which still rank as top scientific research. Keeping only the biggest and most highly competetive facilities would shunt many astronomers away from the mainstream, and possibly jeopardize scientific carreers and long-term research efforts, including some which the NSF has already invested in through general Astrophysics grants.

In short, we need the small facilities. They are relatively cheap, and keep many of us active in research, who would otherwise not get that chance.

--Sebastien Lepine

 

 

Small Telescopes Are More Scientifically Productive

As a member of the NOAO Users Committee, I would like to comment on the budget scenario from the perspective of the US optical and near-infrared system.  It's important to keep in mind that the entire system includes public NOAO facilities as well as private telescopes.  However, the dire budget situation disproportionately affects NOAO, so I will concentrate on those issues here.  As painful as it sounds, the US community may simply have to accept less duplication of capabilities among the public and private facilities.  The US community will probably have to accept an increase in collaborative projects in order to continue productive science.  

That being said, there are substantial scientific and economic advantages to keeping both KPNO and CTIO operating.  Small telescopes are cheaper to operate, simply put.  And scientifically, both KPNO and CTIO are expected to remain internationally competitive over the next decade.  

Crabtree (2011, AAS Meeting #217, #157.19; July 2011 update, private communication) has ranked the scientific productivity of most 4 and 8 meter class telescopes over the period from 2005-2009 using journal citation counts to determine telescope impact factors.  Consider the mean impact per paper:  CTIO Blanco 4m (3.6), KPNO Mayall 4m (3.0), and Gemini (2.8).  Crabtree finds that the CTIO and KPNO 4-meter class telescopes have actually maintained a higher mean impact factor than Gemini, Subaru, the VLT, and most other ground-based telescopes within that period!  Or consider Crabtree's simple performance metric, which compares the number of high impact papers to the number of lower impact papers:  CTIO 4m (0.32), KPNO 4m (0.27) and Gemini (0.22).  Alternatively, consider the number of journal articles published during FY 2010 from these leading NOAO facilities:  KPNO 4m (162), CTIO 4m (137) and Gemini telescopes (54) (source:  David Silva, presentation to the UC, June 2011).  

Many of the existing, unique scientific capabilities of the 4m telescopes have already been discussed by others in this forum so I won't repeat them here.  Significant new instrumentation for the KPNO 4m, CTIO 4m, and SOAR telescopes will only serve to increase their scientific impact.  New optical spectrographs are currently being developed for all three telescopes, and DECam is now being installed at the CTIO 4m.  BigBOSS has been selected as a new large scale program for the KPNO 4m (with significant funding from both the Department of Energy and NSF) and will hopefully be operational by 2018.  The Users Committee believes that DECam and BigBOSS especially will maintain the scientific relevance of KPNO and CTIO, despite their small aperture sizes, over the coming decade.  

On the other hand, the Users Committee has raised serious concerns about Gemini operations, and it may be a mistake for NSF to protect funding for Gemini simply to fulfill its obligations to the international partnership.  While I do believe that cutting funds for Gemini would be a tremendous loss for the public user community (after all, it is by far the most significant share of 8-meter class access for most US astronomers), the dire budget scenario requires an honest look at all programs.  

Quoting from the 2011 Users Committee report to NOAO (available online at http://www.noao.edu/dir/usercom/ ):
    
 "While progress on maximizing the scientific output of the smaller telescopes operated directly by NOAO has been extremely impressive, the UC continues to be deeply concerned about the scientific productivity of the US investment in the Gemini Observatory and the degree to which it meets the US community needs for 8-m class telescope access. For example, the impact of all US Gemini usage is apparently out performed (using different metrics: proposal pressure, publications, citation impact) in science per unit dollar by just a single 4-m class telescope in the US system. This signals that the Gemini Observatory may need to implement profound and radical changes in its operation in order to engage the US user community. While the UC feels that NOAO has advocated for various changes in Gemini operations on behalf of the US community, the response of the international Gemini Observatory has seemed less enthusiastic or apparent to US users. New instruments that are coming to Gemini-S will probably help, but the problem of Gemini not being in line with the needs of the US community and not being utilized productively by the US community is a deeper and more systemic problem that needs to be fixed. However, the UC is hopeful that the new directorship combined with progress on new instrumentation and an increased US share in the observatory may send a message to the US community that even more significant change might be forthcoming in the future."

- Ginny McSwain

US Gemini publications

The 54 publications quoted in Ginny McSwain's post above are for "US Gemini" programs scheduled through the NOAO TAC. I.e. from US Gemini time. In 2011 (not yet widely reported) the US has 83 Gemini papers.

The full Gemini partnership produces more total publications as shown on the Gemini web site. Gemini tracks the publications vs Calendar Year while NOAO tracks publications vs Fiscal Year.

-Bob Blum

Deputy Director NOAO

Gemini publications

Thanks for providing an update about Gemini publications.  I am still surprised that the number of publications from the US community is so low.  The US has ~50% share of the two telescopes, so the total number of publications ought to be equal or greater than from a single 4m class telescope. 

-Ginny

Facility diversity is crucial

Our nation needs a balanced distribution of large, medium, and small class ground-based telescopes for the same programmatic advantages provided by flagship class, medium class, and small class Explorer missions in NASA's Astrophysics program and flagship class, New Frontiers, and Discovery class missions in NASA's Planetary Science progam. 

The medium class (~4m) telescopes located at KPNO and CTIO serve as excellent resources for long-term variability measurements needed to understand the full range of planetary processes, which are not feasible with more time-constrained large telescopes. These telescopes provide an excellent test-bed for riskier ideas that need more proof of concept before performed with larger ground-based or space-based telescopes, and in this way provides an excellent avenue for pure discovery and scientific exploration.

Were it not for the hands on training in astronomy that I recieved as an undergraduate observing the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacts on Jupiter during my month-long stay on Kitt Peak in 1994 I might not be a professional astronomer today.  Such training experiences are simply not possible with the larger, queue-based telescope systems in operation or development today.

Too important a part of what binds this community together

As must be true for most astronomy programs in the country, this forum has been a topic of frequent and fervent discussion in our astro group this past week. While many will speak to the science achieved at the national observatories and projected for the future, I would like to focus attention on the potential threat to the cohesion and diversity of our community.  

As a community, we take pride in the decadal review process that focuses our priorities for the coming years.  I'm positive that KPNO and CTIO play a huge role in building community in our profession.  The national observatories are, by function and by definition, the place where people from widely diverse situations meet in common purpose.  As is true for many who have posted comments this past week, the NOAO facilities have provided virtually all of the telescope access I've had over the past several decades. Because each run, each visit has to be earned by competition and review, we've kept our science sharp.  Equally important, the diversity of scientists using and being trained at these facilities has been preserved.  Closing these accessible, shared facilities will not only reduce the amount of glass available to the community; it will skew facility access to an increasingly narrow segment of the community.  Forcing a reduction in the diversity of astronomers with access to telescopes cannot be good for our profession. 

the decadal process

We should take justifiable pride in the concept of our decadal process.  However, in the long run, such a process suggests we will get the O/IR system we deserve.  Current fiscal strains may be revealing defects in the operation of this process (not the concept thereof) that were not obvious before:

1) The need for post-1930 management practices.  Peter Drucker, the founder of modern management, told us decades ago that no one engaging in a serious planning+budgeting process would do so with a single budget (say $500 million for AST).  One would target 3 budgets:  a bare bones survival budget, a target/hoped for budget (maybe 500 M$), and a maximum drinking-from-the-firehose budget above which productivity would actually fall.  If this simple canon had been followed, we might not be having these discussions b/c the path forward would already have been planned.

2) Having violated management canon and faced with an intermediate term AST budget some 30% lower than assumed, we are now told that re-opening discussion of priorities is not helpful.  In my mind, this simply means "politically inconvenient".  Unfortunately, minimizing political inconvenience is not a strategy or tactic that will not move us forward.  It seems to me that it is  precisely the NSF-designated unhelpful considerations that will.   

3) Many posters to this forum have relayed their great or total reliance on national facilities.  My impression is that there is a dearth of direct representation of this part of the community on the ground based O/IR decadal panel.  Where is the representation from U Kansas, U South Carolina, Florida Tech, etc etc?  This is not to say that our colleagues from telescope-wealthy institutions can't or don't provide adequate representation of the broader community.  In future, though, it seems desirable to have significant direct representation to enhance our process.

Open access and Graduate Education

When we say that the open access 4m system is crucial for graduate education, we do not just mean that we need to teach students how to operate a particular instrument or plan an observing run. Rather students need to have the opportunity to engage in original research - from conceiving of a problem to proposing for observing time to acquiring and analyzing their data. A not insignificant fraction of the proposals I've just reviewed had graduate student PIs. Consolidating our resources into a very few large facilities will have detrimental impact on the quality of graduate education across the community by making it much more difficult for students to pursue their own problems. The 4m system is still generating quality results in all areas of astrophysics, and a number of exciting opportunities on the near horizon will keep the system relevant well through the next decade. 

Given the dramatic gap between the projected NSF budget that appears likely and the budget we planned for, it seems unwise not to re-open talks about what our priorities ought to be. The cost effectiveness and productivity of the 4m systems is well suited for the age of austerity we now find ourselves in. 

Closing KPNO would be a great mistake

I am deeply dismayed by the idea of closing Kitt Peak National Observatory, because those telescopes are essential to my research on time-resolved spectroscopy and photometry of cataclysmic variables and related objects.  I have had a steady program for many years now of taking students to these telescopes, so they won’t become “keyboard astronomers,” but actually have some observing experience, highly desirable for scientists who aspire to be observers. I hope I can plan to continue this program, since my university has provided me with just two 16-inch telescopes.  I can do some photometry of bright objects and essentially no spectroscopy: for everything else, I’m dependent upon KPNO.  Sure, Hawai’i or Chile are wonderful places to take students to, but they are -so- much more expensive. 

I did a study on “The Research Productivity of Small Telescopes,” published in the BAAS 35, no. 4, 1063, and available here:

http://aas.org/archives/BAAS/v35n4/ringwald.pdf

As you can see, the mid-size telescopes at KPNO are among the most productive in the world, and especially among the most cost-effective telescopes ever, considering scientific productivity/cost.

 

- Fred Ringwald

California State University, Fresno

NOAO is essencial to the mainstreet astronomers

In the past 30+ years, my research involved multi-wavelength observations from IR to gamma-ray.  These research projects would be impossible if I did not have complementary ground-based optical observations, and I completely rely on NOAO facilities to obtain these observations.  NOAO is so essential to the mainstreet astronomers who do not have access to private telescopes.  Each NOAO observing program is an "individual investigator program", and NOAO most effectively enable a broad base of astronomical research across the country.  Isn't it a no-brainer to support NOAO?

I am sure there are other NOAO users who share my experience.  My PhD thesis used almost exclusively observations made with CTIO and KPNO telescopes.  When I was a soft-money researcher (on mommy-track), I rely on NOAO data to leverage NASA observations/grants.  I owe NOAO for my eventual success in securing a faculty position.

I most strongly support the NOAO and Gemini facilities because of their open access to researchers. 

Finally, I mention again an idea that was laughed at by AURA member reps - why can't the mainstreet astronomers raise fund from the private sectors?  If I were a wealthy donnor and approached by advocates from public and university telescopes, I would rather support public telescopes than a university telescope. Why don't we generate new source of funding from the private sectors?   Why can't people be "friends of Blanco telescope", for example?  I attended a fund-raising workshop and learned that one reason not to get donations was "they never asked"...

 

Private funding

There are some obstacles to the private funding model:

In general, donors don't want to pay light bills or salaries (operational costs).  They are fond of supporting capital costs.  

One should examine a successful privately funded observatory to get a sense of scale.  The two most recent federal Form 990 filings by Lowell observatory suggest to me that this experienced organization is raising in the  neighborhood of 1-1.5 million $$/year (once one subtracts federal grants and transfers from the related Perival Lowell Trust; I'm not a tax accountant, so ferreting out information with similar granularity is more difficult for me with older versions of the Form 990 used in previous years).   One would have to greatly improve on this performance year after year to fund KPNO/CTIO. 

Sustainable private funding would be in the form of an endowment.  Assuming fiscally sound and sustainable management, this endowment would have to be 10^8 (or a few x 10^8) $$.  If you're trying to raise that amount of funding, then you are competing against AURA members, private facilities, and non-federal public facilities in their fundraising efforts for capital costs of 8-,10-,30-m class facilities.  Of course AURA members reps are going to be hesitant to endorse such an approach.  It's eating their lunch.

More innovative would be a grand-bargain approach analogous to that suggested in the Oregon higher ed system recently:  convince Congress to provide the one time endowment funding, and cut future operations out of the federal budget forever.

 

dire budget predictions

On the expected budget cuts and KPNO closing: Cutting the little guys to focus
support only on big glass parallels the 99%/1% no tax increase for
millionairs situation in the country. Just like the money makers are not
necessarily the job creators, big scope "owners" are not necessarily the
paper creators and science producers. What I am most concerned about is the
decay of the middle class, i.e., those with access to mid-size telescopes.
It would become increasingly hard, if not impossible, to train students so
that they can successfully prepare for bigger programs. The 1m-2m-4m-8m-16m
chain will brake, and the have- and have-not classes will separate even more.
I see bleak prospects for our youngsters, and thus our future as a community.

I appreciate that NSF, NASA,... want to do frontier reseatch - but that should
not be done in concert with a major reduction of community access to mid-size
facilities. Studies clearly indicate the value of facilities such as those at KPNO.
If we lose these national treasures, we are doing a disservice to the community
at large. Perhaps we need to scale back, or prolong, the expenditures for the
frontier instruments so that we can maintain the bedrock.

Keep in mind how many of us contribuet to the vitality of the field by engaging
the next generation of astronomers with hands-on experience on small and mid-
size aperture scopes.... few of us launched on 8m class facilities.

Dieter Hartmann

 

The CTIO 4-m + Hydra spectrograph & Astronomy Education

I am a graduate student in my 3rd year at Penn State. I have been studying star clusters and the evolution of angular momentum and magnetic activity with age in FGK dwarfs.

I appreciate how next generation observatories will transform Astronomy, and Science in general, but I ask that you also consider the unique role of the CTIO 4-m Blanco telescope and Hydra spectrograph:

1) CTIO provides Southern Hemisphere access to North American astronomers

2) The large aperture of Blanco 4-m provides the signal-to-noise required to study faint, astronomically interesting and important sources (e.g. low-mass stars)

3) The Hydra multi-fiber spectrograph accommodates ~130 targets in a large FOV (40 arc-minute), with a variety of low- and high-resolution configurations:  this instrument has a unique capability surpassed only by MMT/Hectochelle (which provides extremely limited access to the public (~3 nights per semester) and is heavily oversubscribed).

While the LSST can provide rotation periods for stars, these periods must be combined with chromospheric indicators of magnetic activity (e.g. Ca II H&K, H-alpha, Ca IR triplet), and it is far too observationally intensive to attempt such surveys with single-slit spectrographs. A lot of other great science can still be done with this instrument and telescope, but I will restrict my comments to my field of study.

Please keep CTIO open - there are simply no other alternative facilities that can provide this wide-field, multi-object capability in the Southern Hemisphere. LSST needs this Chilean facility to provide spectroscopic observations in supplement to the time-series photometry.

Education:  Medium-aperture telescopes play a critical role in the training of next-generation Astronomers. Many programs (I believe) do not have instrumentation and observation coursework, and larger observatories typically have professional observing staff:  reading technical overviews and even sitting in during observations at larger observatories cannot match the experience and insight gained through applying for PI time, planning and condudcting the observations personally, and reducing the data. Closing these facilities will negatively impact many graduate programs that have no other such resources.

Jason Curtis
Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics
The Pennsylvania State University

Support for national access to medium class telescopes

The closure of KPNO and/or CTIO national observatories will have a huge impact on the quality of our field for years to come.  As a graduate student, I learned optical spectroscopy by proposing, observing, and reducing data from the KPNO 2.1-m telescope.  My school (University of Maryland), did not have access to any larger facilities, and the science goals of my projects (observing bright nearby AGN) did not require a Keck/Gemini observation.  I would not be continuining to propose/observe for optical observations if I had not had this experience.

My continued research on nearby AGN includes observations from both KPNO and CTIO facilities.  To observe bright, nearby sources from an all sky survey, the availability of medium class telescopes in both hemispheres is crucial.  Further, no TAC would award the significant investment of time for this type of survey since these sources can easily be observed with smaller telescopes than Keck/Gemini.  If we lose these facilities, we will lose, not only undergraduate/graduate training opportunities, we will also lose significant scientific discoveries from bright, easily studied targets, not to mention the fact that we will place scientists at smaller institutions without private access to telescopes at a huge disadvantage.  Ultimately, we will lose out on scientific diversity.  Saving these facilities should be a priority for NSF.

Lisa M. Winter

University of Colorado

 

Solution for the Long Run?

I think we are dealing with different problems here. Funding sources and at sufficient levels is one of them, and it looks like NSF by far has been the most important. In times of financial trouble and when topics like search for viable renewable energy technologies dominate the landscape, it is foreseeable that public money would be channeled to finance those endeavors. It is clear that other funding sources or mechanisms need to be found, and this is well above my pay grade.

The other problem is observing infrastructure (AKA small and medium size telescopes). We need to be aware of the third industrial revolution, where in order to achieve very low operational costs everything moves around efficiency and optimization. This is all about high equipment reliability and statistical models so planners can have a realistic picture of expected performance, operation costs, human resources, spare parts and whether to use corrective, predictive or preventive maintenance to guarantee an outstanding uptime using a minimal amount of resources. The telescope “fleet” is not only aging, but in fact there is no fleet but just a collection of telescopes of different vintage, mount types, mirror sizes, optical prescriptions, instruments and mechatronic capabilities that were put together in miscellaneous budgetary circumstances by teams not seeking any particular commonalities. While robotic operations is certainly a big part of the solution to reduce operation costs, all of the above works against simply because all those telescopes need constant human intervention in order to operate properly. In other words, they lack the sufficient level of reliability and safety required for unmanned operations. The issue of a common robotic software interface is not a big deal – “device drivers” crafted for each individual telescope would do the trick – and I’m sure that all kinds of remote observing GUIs would pop-up in no time so each observer could pick the flavor of choice without having to default to a common standard chosen by consensus (i.e. one that nobody quite likes it).

With notable exceptions, retrofitting telescopes smaller than 4-meter is time consuming, costly and inefficient. There are a lot of exorbitant non-recurring costs, and as a final result the process doesn’t necessarily yield a state of the art facility just because there is a very limited scope of things that can be done to an existing telescope without completely tearing it apart. Also all this work is performed on site, which multiplies the cost several times. There are similar parallels from other industries around the world with the same outcome – only museums keep very old stuff in working condition at an “astronomical” cost (frequently human).

In my humble opinion, after having worked on the design of small telescopes for the Global Telescope Network, the solution in the long run for having abundant and low cost access to small telescopes (~2.5-meter?) is to develop a bullet-proof state of the art telescope with 50-year design life, beat it to death, fix all bugs and then replicate it as much as possible by deploying unmanned telescope farms all over the planet, preferably replacing old telescopes in sites already developed. The initial development would have to be done in a place with access to a good observing site and abundant technical resources. All the non-recurring costs would be incurred only once, and all the technical risks would burn down during the development process, so replication would carry no residual technical risks. Statistical models of system reliability could be then developed and extrapolated to cover a fleet of telescopes in different stages of their useful life. With such a proven solution private money and money from other governments would be much easier to find as those usually are not attracted to deals with no guarantee of success.

Recent developments like the “cassette type” Torrent controller would make possible to devise an initial set of highly reliable common instruments, also eliminating high non-recurring costs and technical risks associated with building instruments. With all this in hand a high availability Scientific Telescope Network seems more than plausible.

I could write endlessly about the issue and pertinent models, except that I realize that my view may not be the view of the majority of astronomers nor the decision makers. If anybody is interested in hearing more about the topic please just drop by my office and I’ll be glad to further expand.

Oliver Wiecha

KPNO and CTIO telescopes continue forefront research

After serving two and a half years on the NOAO Time Allocation Committee, I have a very good first hand view of the great science being done with the KPNO and CTIO telescopes.  Especially with some of the newer instruments, the 4-meters are as productive as ever or even more-so.  I am extremely enthusiastic about the scientific impact of just about every proposal we recommend to be scheduled on them.  These telescopes continue to advance astronomy across a very broad range of subjects, covering just about everything in the Universe.  The same is also true of WIYN and SOAR.  For a very large and productive scientific community, they are real engines for discovery, in a way that more specialized telescopes can't match. As other commenters correctly pointed out, the success of these telescopes frequently plays a key role in the success of the larger, far more expensive telescopes as well.  The US (and international) astronomical community continues to come up with clever, ambitious, innovative, efficient ways to move the entire field forward at Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo.   Closing down these telescopes would result in a tremendous loss of science that I cannot imagine replacing any other way.  I really hope that this reality is fully appreciated by the scientists at NSF.

 

Matt Malkan

Do not sacrifice essentials

It is almost amazing that the thought of closing KPNO and/or CTIO is being floated. It is an ill-considered proposition that would be seriously damaging to the health of astronomy, both in forefront scientific research and the development of future researchers.

As many have already attested to in this forum, the telescopes operated by the modern NOAO have been incredibly productive and have produced first rate science (need we mention a Nobel Prize). During my time on the NOAO galactic TAC (2007-2010),  I found that proposals for 4-m (and smaller) telescopes were, in my opinion, more scientifically compelling and more innovative than Gemini proposals. The 4-meters were also
far more over-subscribed than the Gemini telescopes. If we base our decisions on the basis of science per dollar, then KPNO and CTIO would be the last place to cut. While past performance is no guarantee of future returns, NOAO is well positioned (e.g., ReSTAR) to continue vital roles and produce forefront science.

I take issue with some points on slide 26 of Jim Ulvestad's presentation, "Initiate significant long-term reductions in existing facilities in order to enable operation of the newest generation of NSF astronomy facilities, ...", and "Protect high priority facilities with international and interagency commitments ..." If one takes the view that high priority equals glamorous projects that are large and expensive, with the result that we lose the broad range of aperture and capabilities that are necessary for astronomy, then we would have made a poor choice. In this current climate, nothing should be sacrosanct, everything needs to be on the table.  Fortunately, the charge to the Portfolio Committee appears more considered and I hope that they can take a balanced view.  We need to provide our reasoned input to the committee.

This is an era of lean budgets that extend into the foreseeable future, with the possibility that within the careers of many of us we will not realize most recommendations in Astro2010. I feel that we need to maintain the necessary core capabilities and the broad health of the astronomy community. Perhaps progress on key questions will be slower than we wish, but the field needs to be positioned to capitalize when times are better.

The Mayall and Blanco as enablers of game-changing science

The Mayall and Blanco Telescopes have undoubtedly made fundamental
contributions to advancing the forefront of astronomy.  The age of
discovery for these telescopes is, however, not just a thing of the
ancient past.  Recently, excellent instrumentation such as NEWFIRM
(built at NOAO) have allowed NOAO telescopes to become world leaders
in wide-field NIR imaging.  I have been involved in an NOAO survey,
the NEWFIRM Medium Band Survey (NMBS) which has been extremely
successful and was only possible with facilities like the Mayall and
Blanco, coupled with the powerful instrumentation.  Indeed, the
science from many NOAO projects, including the NMBS, would simply not
be possible using any currently available 8-meter telescope.

More important even than the past accomplishment of NOAO 4-meter
telescopes, is what the NOAO community will be able to accomplish in
the future with the aid of strong mid-aperture facilities.  As a
member of the NOAO TAC, I can attest that the number of outstanding
proposals insures that these facilities will be superlative in their
accomplishments in the near future.  This is not merely in their
obvious capacity as pathfinders for larger telescopes or follow-up
instruments for LSST.  These facilities are also premier stand-alone
platforms for science.  In my opinion, one of the most interesting
future prospects for NOAO will be the use of the 4-meter telescopes to
host revolutionary new instruments.  These will not only enable high
impact survey programs to address e.g., Dark Energy, but will also
produce high quality public datasets for the community, in the model
of SDSS.  DECCAM is a current example being commissioned on the Blanco
and BigBOSS is a proposed project on the Mayall.  If installed, the
BigBOSS spectrograph will make the Mayall the best facility in the
world for wide-field spectroscopy.  In the words of the committee
tasked with reviewing the BigBOSS proposal to NOAO, chaired by Nobel
Prize recipient Brian Schmidt:

"If BigBOSS achieves its stated science goals, it will be a highly
effective use of the Mayall Telescope in the period of 2016-2020, and
the resulting survey would be one of the telescopeʼs major scientific
contributions during its lifetime."

For a telescope that was used to discover dark matter in galaxies,
helped demonstrate the existence of dark energy, and was used to find
the first gravitational lens, this is high praise indeed.  It
indicates that NOAO facilities have the clear potential to be the best
in the world in tackling some of the most important scientific
questions of our time.  In the spirit of NOAO, the instruments, and
eventually the survey data, will be released to the community creating
truly legacy assets.  The value of future PI science with these
instruments also cannot be underestimated as the community always
makes remarkably innovative uses of new capabilities.

Projects as ambitious as BigBOSS in turn are only possible in close
coordination with a scientifically skilled and motivated NOAO staff.
Removing science time for NOAO staff would be done to achieve
perceived short-term efficiency gains but in reality would permanently
handicap the observatory's ability to serve the community.  Only staff
working at the forefront of research can adequately serve the
community as interfaces with the "system" and as stewards and
pathfinders of NOAO's vision for future research.

 

Gregory Rudnick

University of Kansas

Smaller telescopes

As someone who is just finishing up reviewing proposals at the NOAO TAC this week, I am reminded how important the science is that is being done on telescopes of 4m class and smaller.  Some of it is science involving topics which simply to not require larger telescopes, and the rest of it is science for which our smaller telescopes are crucial for exploiting the data produced by larger telescopes on the ground and ongoing missions like Kepler, HST and Chandra.  In some cases one can imagine migrating the work that is done on smaller telescopes to larger ones, but in many others where longer time baselines are important that will not be possilble.

While private telescopes on the ground can take up some of the slack, that's really not an optimal solution.  A substantial fraction of the private observatiories rely on the infrasture created by the national observatories. Somehow the community needs to pull together and make this point both to the NSF and Congress.  The actual cost of running 4 meter telescopes is small when compared to building and operating the larger ground-based observatories, and space based missions.  While not wanting to slow these projects down in these stressed times, we need to insist on a balanced portfolio of telescopes for all  U. S astronomers

Knox Long

Keep national astronomy program strong

It is quite clear that not only will NSF AST not have money to do all the things the Astro2010 report outlined,  they will not have the money to maintain the current level of support with declining budget outlooks and increasing pressure from ALMA ramp-up and the possibility of LSST bridge funding.     Within 2 years,
the gap between Astro2010 projection and the more realistic 'optimistic' (ie. flat) budget projection is >$20M;  likely it will be more than this.  Within 6 years this gap is expected to exceed $100M.  

It is also quite clear that shutting down Kitt Peak and removing science at NOAO will not come anywhere close to solving the budget crisis, neither in the short term nor the long term.  KPNO operations costs the NSF $5.6M per year;  science at NOAO costs the NSF less than $2M per year (see NOAO program plan FY 2011, p. 65; http://www.noao.edu/dir/program_plan/program_plan_fy11.pdf).   While it might be tempting to close KPNO in order to appear to be "doing something",  what the community really needs is an honest discussion of how to revise our Astro2010 wish list  --- what >$10M projects must we give up or forego for the next decade.

As a former NOAO Goldberg Fellow,  I can attest to the fantastic success of the NOAO science program in recent years.   Former and current NOAO postdocs over the past 5 years include many prize fellows whom have gone on to faculty positions, including Goldberg Fellows Armin Rest (currently STScI faculty), Greg Rudnick (currently U. Kansas faculty), Simon Schuler (current fellow),  Colette Salyck (current fellow), and myself (Jennifer Lotz, current STScI faculty);  Spitzer fellows Alexandra Pope (current U. Mass faculty),  Emanuele Daddi (currently CEA-Saclay faculty),  Hubble fellows Janice Lee (current STScI faculty),  Naveen Reddy (current U.C. Riverside faculty), and Jeyhan Kartaltepe (current Hubble fellow).  Recent graduate students mentored by NOAO staff include Stephanie Juneau (declined a Hubble fellowship), Morie Prescott (TABASGO/UCSB postdoctoral fellow), and Shane Bussmann (SMA fellow at Harvard-CfA).  In 2008,  NOAO postdocs were first authors on 3 of the top 100 most cited papers for that year.   At NOAO,  the staff go out of their way to truly mentor and value the postdocs.   The removal of science from NOAO would surely kill this unique and successful program.

I also worry that without a strong _national_ observatory and national astronomy program,  the US science quality and public support for astronomy will fade.   Europe has been outpacing US astronomy for while
now, largely because it does not have to deal with competition for limited resources between private universities or between private and public facilities.  NOAO has been a leader in setting up private-public partnerships to provide national access to top notch facilities.  When new cutting-edge instrumentation is available (i.e. NEWFIRM
at KPNO),  the demand from the community has been very strong,  with very high oversubscription rates.
We need to continue to provide national facilities and equal access for _anyone_ with a great idea to execute that idea.  

 

-- Jennifer Lotz,  Assistant Astronomer, Space Telescope Science Institute

forgot to include ...

forgot to include Lucas Macri (former Hubble + Goldberg fellow, current Texas A&M faculty) and Christine Chen (former Spitzer fellow,  current STScI faculty) to the recent NOAO postdoc list.

Closure of NOAO 4m telescopes

To Whom It May Concern:

Closing one or both 4m telescopes of the NOAO would be a scientific disaster and I speak as one who has regular access to a 4m-class telescope at Apache Point.

First the obvious, in just a few minutes a 4m telescope can image objects for which an optical, classification spectrum still cannot be obtained with an 8 or 10m telescope. The wide-field capability of our national 4m telescopes is practically unique, matched only by Subaru. Other 4m class telescopes like ours at APO as well as larger apertures operate at such long focal lengths that the field-of-views are too small for decent survey work. Clearly NOAO recognizes this in its Dark Energy Camera initiative.

Now, as far as my particular science interests are concerned. We here at Colorado who are involved with the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) project on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are busy mapping the local Universe in gas AND galaxies to provide a full picture of the Cosmic Web. As you might know, most of the baryons in the local Universe are in the intergalactic medium (IGM), not in galaxies. The inefficiency of galaxy formation means that galaxy building is still going on today and can be studied in more detail at z ~ 0 than at z > 2 where IGM absorption becomes possible to study using ground-based telescopes. But without wide-field multi-object spectroscopy (MOS) of low redshift galaxies, the wealth of IGM information being gathered by HST/COS is sterile… these important and expensive measurements devolve into an arcane study of absorber physical properties WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF CONTEXT. Wide-field MOS on 4m class telescopes (WIYN/HYDRA and CTIO/HYDRA) is an absolute necessity to take full advantage of the high signal-t-noise and resolution HST/COS UV spectroscopy. The development of the Big BOSS spectrograph for the Mayall 4m is substantial evidence that NOAO understands the importance of this research goal as well as a multitude of others.

Sincerely Yours,

John Stocke
Prof of Astronomy
Astrophysical & Planetary Sciences Dept
U of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0391

Statement: Dept. of Astronomy of Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison

To NSF Astronomy Portfolio Review Committee:

Thank you for providing the opportunity for us to comment on this important process. Wisconsin astronomy and astrophysics are in a position where we benefit from NSF support in variety of ways. We operate or lead specialized centers, such as WHAM and IceCube, as well as benefiting from other related activities of our Physics colleagues, we are partners in the WIYN and SALT observatories, we use national observatories, especially for radio observations, and depend on NSF grants for research and student training. Continuing NSF support for astronomical research and associated educational activities is essential for a healthy U.S. effort, and for us continuing such support is an especially important issue for the WIYN Observatory, which is the focus of this comment.

Located at the NOAO site on Kitt Peak, WIYN is a mid-sized OIR telescope operated in a partnership where NOAO is the largest member. The WIYN 3.5-m telescope is a modern intermediate-aperture telescope with a lightweight design that delivers superb images over its 1-degree field of view. Its pair of focal ports allows quick changes between instruments, and thus a level of flexibility that is lacking on most older telescopes. Even so its capabilities are not yet fully exploited and further operational gains can be obtained, e.g., by instrumenting its third focal port.

Intermediate aperture telescopes with good performance, such as WIYN, remain critical assets for astronomical research and education. They have the aperture to reach all but the faintest objects, yet also offer access for higher risk research programs, time-dependent studies, supporting multi-wavelength programs, and prototyping of new kinds of instrumental capabilities. They also are particularly important as platforms for student research, and WIYN has been highly successful in supporting Ph.D. theses. This range of activities cannot simply be moved to already oversubscribed large aperture telescopes without a serious loss in scientific productivity.

Looking to the future, WIYN is and will continue to provide a highly capable research facility, as it has in the current era of multiple larger aperture telescopes, including Keck and Gemini. Being competitive in part reflects decisions to focus on specific classes of capabilities, such as time domain spectroscopy, narrow band imaging in the optical and NIR, and integral field spectroscopy designed to reach to low surface brightness objects. In these and other areas aperture is not necessarily the only relevant metric. Furthermore we this approach offers a variety of possible pathways for maintaining scientific capabilities of WIYN well into the future.

Our position regarding WIYN, Kitt Peak, and intermediate aperture telescopes follows from these points and our wider experience with observatories on the ground and in space:

- WIYN currently is and will remain an effective scientific research and education facility for at least this decade. Its scientific grasp during this time naturally will depend on instrumentation. Given the commitment of the WIYN partners, including ourselves, to support WIYN, and its proximity to Tucson and NOAO that offers a chance to innovate technologically, we believe that its instrumentation will continue to evolve. Future instruments that we are considering have the potential to significantly increase data rates, thereby providing more information from less observing time, while also offering an opportunity to educate new generations of technically savvy astronomers.

- WIYN and other intermediate aperture telescopes will continue to play important roles in enabling science operations of large aperture telescopes through supporting surveys. Medium sized telescopes also should be considered for their potential as demonstration platforms and thus for risk mitigation for the next generation instrumentation development for large aperture telescopes.

- The WIYN partnership is a long-lived example of how public-private collaborative programs can work. For example, NOAO has brought key skills to WIYN in a variety of instrumental, operational and scinetific areas. Disruption of the WIYN partnership naturally would have the potential for undesirable affects on the motivation for our university to join arrangements of this type in the future.

- Insuring the stability of access to the Kitt Peak site and the operation of its infrastructure obviously are critical for the continued health of WIYN.

We recognize the difficulty of the current situation for funding astronomy. Partnerships with national centers, such as WIYN, have considerably aided national astronomy, through scientific, financial and technical contributions from the member universities. Hopefully these kinds of positive arrangements can be maintained and even strengthened in the coming years.

Amy Barger
Matthew Bershady
Jay Gallagher
Matthew Haffner
Sebastian Heinz
Alexander Lazarian
Robert D. Mathieu
Marina Orio
Jeffrey Percival
Andrew Sheinis
Snezana Stanimirovic
Richard Townsend
Christy Tremonti
Bart Wakker
Barbara Whitney
Eric Wilcots
Marsha Wolf
Ellen Zweibel

Investment Strategies for NOAO

The National Observatory should have facilities that are nationally
accessible.  Indeed, the large projects of the near future will be
game-changing in their own ways, but large portions of the
observational support to those large projects will come from the
smaller, workhorse, telescopes at KPNO and CTIO.  Here are a few
specific thoughts as to why it is crucial to keep both KPNO and CTIO
in operation:

1. The investments multiply when many bright people have access to
   telescopes.  In particular, many projects on these telescopes are
   driven by student input, who have fresh viewpoints and a wealth of
   energy.  Let us not forget that we do have a responsibility to
   train the next generation of astronomers.

2. Small telescopes permit time-domain science to be done that simply
   cannot be done with large telescopes because observing time is
   precious.  Our own astrometry/photometry program on the CTIO 0.9m
   has now been running for 12 years and provides datasets unmatched
   anywhere.  We've had more than 20 astronomers involved in the
   science.

3. There are ways that 0.9m to 4.0m class telescopes enhance
   productivity in ways rarely imagined.  The most relevant case at
   Georgia State are the unexpected links between KPNO, CTIO, and the
   CHARA Array, which is also an NSF-supported facility.  The System
   really is working, and to remove the smaller cogs from the System
   seems to be perilous.

Having said that, we can't have it all and do it all. 

To reiterate one suggestion that has already been considered, it may
help to relieve budget pressures at NSF by bringing universities,
private entities, and any other interested parties to the table to
purchase telescope time, including the 4m telescopes, and thereby
cover the costs.  This has worked well for the SMARTS model at CTIO
for four smaller telescopes, and perhaps could work at KPNO as well.
While nearly every institution in the U.S. is strapped for cash at
this moment, the amount of funding required to carry out solid science
is not extreme, roughly $10K for a week of time at CTIO, for example.
When many investigators come forward from many institutions, the
dollars really do start to add up.
 

The National Observatories

There is a sea change in how we do astronomy. In my time, an astronomer, usually as part of a few person collaboration, would apply for time at NOAO, NRAO, Arecibo, get the data, write a paper (perhaps after a few observing runs) and get it published. This was an extremely important way of doing science for many reasons. Only from  the late 60s on, astronomers did not have to be from one of the few "elite" institutions which had their own telescopes - Caltech, UC, Texas, UA,Mt. Wison,  and a few others. If you were not part of these universitites you had almost no chance to be an observational astronomer of note. The NSF run facilities were revolutionary in allowing much greater access to telescopes, increasing the number of astronomers, and allowing other universities to establish great astronomy departments  - UW, Michigan, Ohio State ,Yale ,Florida, UNC, Virginia, and many more. One could do great research using the national facilities.

NASA also helped revolutionize observatoinal astronomy with public access space observatories -IUE, HST, IRAS, and many more. By the 1990s the US was the envy of the astronomical world.

There still was a strong private presence with the older observatories - Lick, Palomar, Mt.Wilson, UH, and newer ones like Keck and Las Campanas. But in the 1990s things began to change. Operating facilities began to be more expensive. Instruments were more expensive. And perhaps the biggest change -  could you now could get mini-grants from NASA observatories. People forgot that when you got time at NOAO or NRAO, your run was the equivalent of an NSF grant of many $10,000 dollars in NSF support. Earlier NSF would give travel support and pay for a substantial part of page charges but these were dropped  in the 80s.

In the 80s, the privates began to complain that they did not have equal access to NSF money. They stated that NOAO was too expensive. Astronomers from elite institutions even lobbied to close down NOAO because after all "no good science ever came out of NOAO." (that is a real quote). But once the TSIP program was started where NSF money would be traded for public access to the private observatories, suddenly a night on one of the private observatories was much more expensive! The national facilitites were no longer an easy target.

But thus began the carping that only second rate astronomers used NOAO. The support for NOAO eroded because of this criticism, and because the facilitie,s as money was tigher, could offer less and less support. The real disaster though was want Gemini was divorced from NOAO. This dates back to the Reagan years and the NSF head Bloch, that demanded international collaboration even if we could afford to do it ourselves. Gemini, which was well underway in development at NOAO, was ripped out of NOAO and made international in the 80s. Then the 1990 Decadal Survey chastized NOAO for not having done anything useful in the 80s, forgetting that our premiere project was taken from us, and all the development work and money went unappreciatedt.

By the year 2000, the organization of groundbased astronomy was in disarray. Decilining budgets, the schizophrenic divisions of the national observatories, and access to research funding from NASA facilities led to NOAO being apparently less relevant. But in terms of the number of astronomers using NOAO, the facilities are just as popular. There are just so many more astronomers now.

What would happen if we close NOAO? The majority of astronomers would not have access to 4m, 2m, and 1m class telescopes. To be an astronomer at a non-elite university, the only way to get observing time is to collaborate with people at place which have observatories (note though: some observatories do have serious guest observer programs).

With the LSST, new space telescopes, and other new facilities, who will be the leaders in observational astronomy if we close NOAO? The answer is obvious. We will be returning to the days of the 50s when only a small percentage of the facilities (at the privates) will have access to telescopes.

What do we do? At NSF only 1 in 7 or so general grant programs are funded. Unlike most sciences, astronomy money goes to fund national observatories. Where do we find the money? I don't know, but I don't buy the argument that our precious operating funds would be more efficiently spent supporting private observatories in return for telescope time. The result will be that NOAO would inherit a bunch of decaying infrastruture that will cost more than running the telescopes at NOAO which have been well maintained.

Again, I don't have answers here. But don't let access to smaller than 8m telescopes die away. We will be returning to the days when only a small fraction of astronomers have access to excellent facilities.

In closing, can good science be done on smaller telescopes? of course! The discovery of Type Ia supernovae as distant indicators was done on small telescopes,and the discovery of acceleration which won the Nobel Prize in Physics this year, was anchored on data taken at the 0.9m at CTIO, and with discovery data at the NOAO 4m telescopes.

 

NOAO infrastructure enables universities to buy into science

My university, RIT, is located on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. The weather here is terrible, and although I do what I can with our small campus observatory, many good projects are just impossible.

A few years ago, we joined a consortium of universities which operates the WIYN 0.9-m telescope at Kitt Peak. Because NOAO provides basic infrastructure on the mountain -- roads, power, water, liquid nitrogen, etc. -- the cost of maintaining and operating this telescope is small. It was easy to convince my administrators that the small investment in this telescope was worthwhile: we can send two students each year to the mountain to gain hands-on experience in observational astronomy.

What they learn goes beyond the projects they carry out during that time; they come away from the trip with a heightened appreciation for the many ways that artefacts, satellites and observational mishaps can insert bogus signals into their data. As more and more astronomers rely on giant archives of measurements, and fewer and fewer have first-hand experience making measurements, this attitude of skepticism will become more and more important.

If NOAO did not provide the infrastructure at Kitt Peak (and CTIO), universities like RIT would find it economically infeasible to band together to run small telescopes at good sites. This small investment by the federal government leads to additional investment by private and public universities.

Is this the end of Leo Goldberg's vision?

More than any other observatories, KPNO and CTIO are the flagships of the NATIONAL Optical Astronomy Observatories.  Shutting down either or both will signal essentially the end of astronomy "of the people, by the people, for the people".  The 'haves' will have won over the 'have nots'.  Sure, one can make arguments that the supported large facilities are open access, etc, but these are different beasts.  They have specialized capabilities -- including the survey facilities.  Eliminating general purpose facilities will mean the subordination of individual investigator science.  If shutting down the NOAO flagships is the only way forward, then let us all be cognizant that the model and philosophy for doing science will be fundamentally altered.  Is this really what we want? 

Are there any viable alternatives?  I certainly don't know, but I question why all the international commitments are off the table for discussion -- at the 100% level?   I also think we need to be careful about the mandate for future capability over present productivity.  Yes of course we need to ensure future productivity -- but current oversubscription rates should also be considered.  It would be a serious bummer if we eliminated current productivity and then fumbled on a future project for which it was sacrificed.  Finally, I'm concerned about the note in Tom Statler's presentation that metrics will not be prioritized.  Major decisions need to be supported by data.

Maybe a change in our model is inevitable, and clearly the trend has been in this direction.  But if we take the final step, then we should all be acutely aware of it -- it should not be something that "just happened" while some of us weren't looking.

 

Value of KPNO telescopes, facilities, and infrastructure

I view the potential closure of KPNO telescopes with great dismay. My colleagues and I are frequent users of the 4-m telescope to do physical studies of Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) that were measured  by the WISE spacecraft mission.  The aperture of the 4-m is necessary to obtain adequate signal:noise ratio to do mineralogical classification of these small, dim objects whose diameters and albedos have already been determined from the infrared flux measured by the spacecraft.  Diameters and albedos of asteroids are otherwise usually unavailable, so the findings of WISE make ground-based spectrophotometry especially worthwhile.  We also use the 2.3-m telescope of Steward Observatory on Kitt Peak for this same project.

Our work with the 4-m is just one example of how important that telescope is for rounding out knowledge of discoveries and measurements made by spacecraft.

I am also the Principal Investigator of the Spacewatch Project of the University of Arizona that operates two smaller telescopes on Kitt Peak in the Steward Observatory compound.  Spacewatch surveys the solar system for asteroids and comets and follows up discoveries of NEAs by other stations world-wide.  This work is valued by NASA, Congress, and the general public; Spacewatch was recently noted as the discovering station of the NEA 2005 YU55, a 300-m diameter object that recently made a close pass by the Earth.  During the WISE mission, Spacewatch concentrated on following up NEAs and other priority objects discovered by WISE, and led the world in numbers of observations of such objects made close upon their dates of discovery.
 
Kitt Peak is one of the easiest places to do astronomy.  The infrastructure is excellent, the road is maintained by the Arizona Dept. of Transportation at no cost to KPNO, and the proximity to Tucson is highly favored by support personnel.  They can commute to the mountain in the morning, get a lot of useful work done, and go home at a reasonable hour in the evening.  Night sky brightness is not as much of an issue as one might believe. 

Kitt Peak has become the iconic "Observatory" in the public mind these last 5 decades; the public observing programs at the Visitors' Center are in high demand and well attended day and night.

I do not know what the effect of the closure of the Kitt Peak facilities would be on Steward Observatory.  We use their electrical power, water, sewer, telephone, internet, liquid nitrogen, snow plowing, and food services and generally benefit from the infrastructure on the mountain.  For Steward Observatory, or even Steward combined with some of the other tenant observatories on the mountain, to take over those costs could mean those funds would be requested of Federal agencies anyway.

I urge the authorities to find a way to keep KPNO open in a way that is consistent with a broad overview of groundbased astronomy.  Part of this overview is to consider the effect of budgetary actions on the Federally-funded tenants of Kitt Peak as well as on the NOAO facilities themselves.

 

Keeping NOAO open

Dear colleagues,

Although I am no longer part of the US community I am dismayed by the potential crisis that NOAO is facing.  Keeping medium-sized telescopes in operation is essential in my opinion since there is a wide range of scientific questions that can addressed with these kinds of telescopes.  This includes exploiting, for instance, the potential of wide-field imaging or spectroscopic surveys with ODI, DES, or COSMOS/KOSMOS and BigBOSS. This includes complementing space-based observations (e.g., HST imaging with ground-based spectroscopic follow-up, or Gaia follow-up at spectral ranges, resolutions, or sensitivities not afforded by that satellite), or the possibility of observing comparatively bright sources of astronomical interest. 

The NOAO facilities are highly competitive and productive.  Their loss would mean severely reduced telescope access for a many institutions without own, proprietary facilities.  Their loss would increase the oversubscription of large optical telescopes, which may be overkill for quite a few programs.  Their loss would also considerably reduce the options for student projects and for teaching students how to observe.  My own students have repeatedly benefited from unique NOAO telescopes and instruments, and I very much hope that ways can be found to minimize cutbacks. 

Eva Grebel

 

On the critical role of NOAO in my team's research

I am writing to describe the critical role of mid-size facilities provided by NOAO in my research. Over the past decade, my collaborators and I have developed ``gyrochronology,'' a precise new method of deriving the age of a cluster or field star from its rotation period and its mass (or a suitable proxy such as color). The current precision of ~15% is already superior to those available from the chromospheric and isochrone age determination methods, which are the other widely used methods. This precision enables a far more precise chronological arrangement of astronomical objects and phenomena than was possible before. Examples are the planet-host stars and their planets, being discovered by Kepler and other ground-based efforts, the debris disk stars found by Spitzer, and open clusters. There are plans to use it with LSST and PLATO to understand, for example, the star formation history of the Galaxy, its chemical evolution, and a precise version of the age-velocity dispersion relationship. It is a tool with wide applicability.

My collaborators and I are also making significant progress in understanding the physics that underlies gyrochronology, in elucidating fundamental processes relating to rotating stars, magnetic activity, X-Ray emission, the role of binaries in the above processes, and we are beginning to understand the second-order perturbations to gyrochronology, to alleviate the associated systematic errors, and even to offer corrections to prior age determination methods.

NOAO facilities have been, and will continue to be, critical to the above work. During my thesis years (at Yale), I benefited from large allocations of telescope time on NOAO imagers attached to 1m-class telescopes, especially those at CTIO. This work led to the identification of two sequences of rotating stars in open clusters, and eventually to an understanding of the spindown behavior of both those kinds of stars. Over time, my collaborators and I have been allocated significant amounts of time on the CTIO 0.9m and 1m, WIYN 3.5m, Blanco 4m, and the MMT 6.5m and their multi-object spectrographs to clarify the color-magnitude diagrams of the above open clusters, and thereby to nail down the spin-down behavior precisely. These measurements are the bedrock observations for the development of all subsequent applications of gyrochronology. They have also enabled us to seek and receive substantial allocations of time on space-based observatories such as Chandra, and now Kepler, to expand the understanding of the fundamental physics underlying the above work. This ground-based work performed with NOAO facilities is critical, for example, in selecting appropriate targets for study with Chandra, and for the Kepler Cluster Study, where targets need to be uploaded to the satellite quarterly. We are also now beginning to use larger telescopes such as Magellan to elucidate the role of metallicity in the above work, and access to these larger apertures through NOAO will again be critical.

In preparation for the large-scale application of gyrochronology using LSST, PLATO, etc. on a massive scale to understand the evolution of Galactic phenomena, we are preparing to use the supernova field data from the Dark Energy Survey. Again, the access would be through NOAO. Consequently, it is difficult to imagine that my collaborators and I could do any significant observational work without the access that NOAO provides. Thus, our project team is highly concerned about any hits that NOAO would potentially take.

Sydney A. Barnes

Keep NOAO open for the next generation

I write these comments from the control room of the SMARTS 1.0m telescope at Cerro Tololo, on a beautiful night, almost exactly the 41st anniversary of my first observing run at CTIO. My 7-night run is observing time that was awarded through the NOAO portion of time on the SMARTS telescopes.

It has been photometric, and with extremely stable air, all 7 nights, apart from a few hours of clouds on one of the nights. This is typical of Tololo, one of the world's leading astronomical sites. How fortunate American astronomers are to have had access to the southern hemisphere through this marvelous facility for so many years!

I would not have had a career in astronomy without the national observatories. These institutions were created by the visionaries of the previous generation, with the support of our nation's Science Foundation. They realized that astronomy would flourish in America if astronomers at institutions across the country had access to telescopes at first-rate sites.

So it is with a feeling of disbelief that I hear that the national observatories may no longer be available to the next generation. Will the opportunities that were afforded to me when I was young no longer be offered? Will we go back to the era where only a few elites at prestigious institutions had access to telescopes at great sites? It is difficult for me to believe that this is being seriously considered at the Foundation, and I hope it is not the case.

A pithy statement made by the late Don Osterbrock in the 1980's comes to mind: "If we had only had the Hale Telescope, we would already know the Hubble Constant," the implication being that if only a chosen few have access to the facilities, a wrong result cannot be checked and challenged by other talented scientists.

Astronomers need a diverse range of telescopes in order to advance our science. A 1-meter telescope like the one I am using tonight can obtain images of objects for which a followup spectrum can only be obtained by the largest telescopes in the world. Does a small telescope mean small science? No, indeed; my program tonight is in support of a current Hubble Space Telescope project. And the 0.9m telescope a few steps away played an important role in calibrating the large-telescope data for the cosmological work that just won the Nobel Prize.

And let's not forget the educational role of these telescopes; at the moment, a young graduate student is sitting here in the control room, ready and eager to take over the telescope tomorrow for a thesis project. And let's not forget what a bargain these telescopes are; the operating cost is minuscule compared to the expenses involved in running 4, 8, and 10m instruments.

So, for the sake of the next generation, not to mention a few old-timers who might still have some good ideas, the Foundation needs to find a way to keep a thriving national observatory, serving the advancement of astronomy with a diverse suite of telescopes available to the best projects from astronomers across America.

Howard E. Bond

Astronomer Emeritus

Space Telescope Science Institute

Grad Student Perspective

Others have already expressed--more eloquently than I could--why it is important to keep KPNO and CTIO open. I just want to chime in as a grad student, currently writing from the 1m control room at CTIO, that real experience at small telescopes both here and at Kitt Peak has been a crucial part of my career and training thus far, both for the experience and for the data. I know that i am a better astronomer because of it. The 'big telescope' queue data I have obtained is of course incredibly valuable as well, but there is simply nothing that can compare to running the telescope yourself. I hope a way can be found to keep the NOAO small telescopes operating long into the future!

Ashley Pagnotta, Louisiana State University

Last updated or reviewed July 7, 2012.