Panel tells the National Science Foundation to stop funding Kitt Peak's biggest telescopes

2012-08-16T14:43:00Z 2012-08-16T15:35:46Z Panel tells the National Science Foundation to stop funding Kitt Peak's biggest telescopesBy Tom Beal, Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 16, 2012 2:43 pm  • 

The National Science Foundation should "divest" its telescopes on Kitt Peak, according to a panel it commissioned to advise it on expected budget cuts.

Recommended for divestiture: The 4-meter Mayall Telescope, the largest optical telescope on the mountain; the iconic McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope;  the 2.1-meter telescope and federal involvement in a multi-university telescope called the WIYN.

The report, called a “portfolio review,” was commissioned when it became clear to NSF that its budget would not grow enough in coming years to fund new projects and maintain support for old ones.

Tucson-based observatories had already braced for cuts.

Kitt Peak has known it faces the loss of its five solar astronomy instruments when the National Solar Observatory moves its headquarters to Boulder, Colo., in conjunction with construction of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

That move, which means the loss of about 70 scientific jobs in Tucson, is set for 2016. Its giant new solar telescope slated to be built in Hawaii at a cost of $300 million, will suck the funding from two solar observatories on Kitt Peak in Arizona and Sacramento Peak in New Mexico, both of which will be totally defunded when the ATST goes on line in 2016.

In February, when the NSF released its budget, it said at least one of those facilities would have to close this year. The portfolio review recommended that McMath-Pierce be closed this year.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory laid off 35 scientists and support workers earlier this year when its support was cut in the current budget, 20 of them from its Tucson headquarters.

NOAO Director David Silva said today that he will learn tomorrow of any further budget cuts this year, but noted that the ultimate fate of the observatories will be decided by Congress during budget negotiations.

Silva also said that the Mayall Telescope could continue operating without the support of NSF.

The Mayall Telescope could become a wide-field spectrograph that could provide a history of the expansion of the universe and insights into the nature of dark energy.

As expected, the committee gave priority ranking to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a wide-field telescope coupled with the world's argest digital camera. Its mirror has already been cast at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab and the pad for its observatory is being cleared on a mountaintop in Chile.

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From the cosmos to the invisible world of nanotechnology, this is the place for anyone with a "scientific bent" in Southern Arizona.

Senior reporter Tom Beal provides color commentary from the science beat and assistant business editor Dave Wichner contributes an inside look at the business aspects of technology.

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