S. Arizona scientists fare well in budget

Area space, astronomy projects allotted funding as expected
2013-04-11T00:00:00Z S. Arizona scientists fare well in budgetTom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 11, 2013 12:00 am  • 

President Obama's proposed budget had good and bad news for Tucson-area astronomers and space scientists, most of it anticipated.

The area's two biggest projects - the Chile-bound Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the asteroid-bound OSIRIS-REx mission - remain funded and on schedule, with the LSST receiving its first construction funds from the National Science Foundation in fiscal year 2014.

The University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, which proposed and will operate the NASA mission to asteroid RQ36, also hopes to benefit from NASA proposals to discover and detour Earth-bound space rocks.

Budgets for the two national observatories that operate on Kitt Peak, meanwhile, were flatlined or cut in the National Science Foundation budget, which reiterated the agency's intention to stop funding telescopes on Kitt Peak operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and the National Solar Observatory.

Those facilities are seeking other operators, and the NSF's director of Astronomical Services recently assured astronomers here that some basic infrastructure and transition money will be made available.

NOAO Director David Silva said Wednesday that his flat budget was expected. He had prepared for it with layoffs last year.

"It is consistent with our current plan and we're happy with what we got," Silva said.

He's even happier with funding for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. "That's good news for Tucson and for NOAO," Silva said.

Some of his former employees have already been hired to work on the new telescope, and NOAO is participating in the project.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will be installed on a mountaintop in Chile, has its headquarters in Tucson. Its novel mirror design, which incorporates the primary and tertiary mirror in one giant 8.4-meter piece of glass, was conceived and built by astronomers and optical scientists at the UA's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab.

Its recommended construction budget of $27.5 million for FY14 will allow a doubling of scientific staff in Tucson in the next 18 months to about 50, said Victor Krabbendam, project manager.

The telescope, paired with the world's largest camera, will conduct a deep, continuous survey of the night sky. Its total construction cost is nearly $466 million, and it is expected to see first light in 2019.

Krabbendam called inclusion in the budget "a really key step." The project must pass final design review at the end of this year, an audit and approval of those steps from the National Science Board. Then Congress must approve the president's proposal.

"In some ways we've only just begun, but in this fiscal environment, you can't overemphasize how very good this is," Krabbendam said.

Ed Beshore, deputy principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx, said that mission's full funding was expected but welcome. Mission managers were also elated to be singled out in NASA's news conference on the budget Wednesday.

"It looks to us like we're in pretty good shape, and the statements NASA made that we're on track for a 2016 launch make us a high priority," Beshore said.

The mission dovetails with recent concern about the danger of near-Earth objects, or NEOs, after the February crash of an asteroid in Russia.

NASA doubled its budget for NEO searches. It included planning money for a mission to a small, nearby asteroid that would be a test of its ability to move an asteroid or comet bound for Earth into another trajectory.

OSIRIS-REx, which is traveling to a more distant, larger and potentially dangerous asteroid, will gather important knowledge for that mission and a later human mission, Beshore said.

"We just want to make sure that everybody understands we're the guys to come to," Beshore said.

Beshore is former head of the Catalina Sky Survey, which has discovered about half the known dangerous NEOs.

He said area astronomers are in good position to compete for any new opportunities offered by NASA.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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