by John Deering
How much does it cost to run a telescope? The above cartoon appeared in today's newspaper and compares professional astronomers' telescopes to the coin-fed tourist telescopes. (Clicking on the comic will take you to the comic's home page.)
Although the artist may not realize it, he came close to the cost of running a telescope. The Keck Observatory's twin telescopes cost $11 million/year to run. This works out to USD $15,500 per night (it's closed on Christmas Eve) per telescope. For a typical 10-hour night, this is about $1550 per hour, or 42 cents per second. So, bring your quarters!
Where does this money come from? It varies from observatory to observatory, and telescope to telescope. Most of the money to run a ground-based telescope comes from the National Science Foundation, which ultimately comes from the federal budget and your tax dollars. Many observatories use money from universities, which is a combination of state and federal money. A lot of telescopes are run with money from private endowments and private contributions. And a small handful of telescopes are run as businesses, with the observers paying for each hour they use the telescope.