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  • Observatory Downsizing, Telescope Closings Proposed
Nov 2006
WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 2006 -- The National Science Foundation's (NSF) Astronomy Senior Review Committee report, released today, recommends downsizing the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, making significant changes within the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and closing most of the public solar telescopes.

The committee, a subcommittee of the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee, included representatives from universities and national laboratories. It was asked to make major recommendations for restructuring the NSF's ground-based astronomy efforts in a bid to save its Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) $30 million, roughly 15 percent of the total budget, 25 percent of the budget currently spent on facilities and approximately a quarter of the combined budgets of the four national observatories.

The committee did not , however, put a dollar amount on its recommendations, saying among other things that a more in-depth cost analysis of each suggestion needs to be performed first.ATST.jpg
Illustration of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, which, if constructed, would be the largest solar telescope in the world.

Among its major recommendations, the committee suggested that the National Solar Observatory (NSO) should consolidate operations into a single headquarters and close its operations at Kitt Peak, Ariz., and Sacramento Peak, N.M., as soon as funding begins for the 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST). ATST will be the largest solar telescope in the world, using adaptive optics technology to provide the sharpest views ever taken of the solar surface. Currently in the design phase, ATST is proposed to be located at Haleakala, Hawaii, east of Mees Solar Observatory, and may be operational in 2014.

The committee also recommended that support for the Global Oscillations Network Group (GONG) project end one year after the successful opening of the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The NSO also operates GONG, a worldwide network of six solar telescopes for helioseismology, and the GONG Data Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Other recommendations had to do with the Tucson, Ariz.-based National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), a national center for research in ground-based optical and infrared astronomy. NOAO was formed in 1982 to consolidate all ground-based astronomical observatories managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the National Solar Observatory) under a single director, although the NSO now has its own director. As a national facility, NOAO telescopes are open to all astronomers. NOAO also represents the US astronomical community in the International Gemini Project through its new NOAO Gemini Science Center.

The committee said NOAO should reduce its major instrumentation, data products, administrative and science research staff over the next five years and concentrate its efforts on allocating astronomer access to telescopes at the Gemini Science Center, managing the Telescope System Instrumentation Program and operating existing or possibly new telescopes at Cerro Tololo and Kitt Peak.

Significant changes recommended for the Charlottesville, Va.-based National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) by 2011 include transitioning the Very Long Baseline Array (VBLA) and Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico to mostly rely on international funding and personnel or risk closure; reducing operations costs for the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) and cutting NRAO scientific staff costs.

The VLBA is a system of 10 radio-telescope antennas,each with a dish 82 feet in diameter and weighing 240 tons. It spans more than 5000 miles, from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.

"The VLBA is used by scientists from around the world because of its unique capabilities. It has produced landmark research milestones and the committee recognized in its report that the VLBA now is poised to become even more scientifically productive. We will aggressively pursue international assistance in keeping this world-class research tool operational, and are optimistic that we will succeed," said Fred K.Y. Lo, NRAO director, in a statement today.

The VLBA provides the greatest angular resolution, or ability to see fine detail, of any telescope in the world, exceeding the capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope and the future Square Kilometre Array. The committee acknowledged that fact in its report, saying that "if the VLBA is closed, a unique capability would likely be lost for decades."

Regarding the GBT, Lo said the NRAO is already taking steps to make operations as efficient as possible.

"We look forward to an independent cost analysis by specialists in telescope operations and business administration," he said. "In the meantime, we will redouble efforts to explore alternative modes of operation while continuing to enhance scientific capabilities."

The committee said there is a strong scientific case for proceeding with the Giant Segmented Mirror Telescope, the Large Survey Telescope and the Square Kilometer Array projects and that a high-level commission addressing optical-infrared facilities should start to bring together the diverse components of the national program to fully realize its potential.

The AST said it will hold a series of regional town meetings to discuss the committee’s findings and recommendations and get community input. For more information, visit:

The scientific observation of celestial radiation that has reached the vicinity of Earth, and the interpretation of these observations to determine the characteristics of the extraterrestrial bodies and phenomena that have emitted the radiation.
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