Friday, January 26, 2007

Proposing to use telescopes

Whew! I have worked harder this week than for a long time, all trying to get some different proposals to use the Hubble Space Telescope done. I sent one in a few minutes ago, and other collaborators at other institutions are putting finishing touches on others, so I can finally relax.

Many of you probably are wondering, "What the heck is this proposal he's talking about, anyway?" So let me explain.

The vast majority of professional astronomers do not work in front of a telescope. We spend most of our time in an office in front of a computer to do our work. Professional astronomers share all of our large telescopes with other astronomers at our institutions, at other schools, and around the world. So if I learn of a neat object I want to study, I can't just jump in my car, drive to the mountain top, open up the dome and start looking. Somebody else is probably already using the telescope, and they won't be too happy if I force my way in to the dome and try to take over for the night.

In order to get the telescope, I must start by writing a proposal. A proposal has two jobs. First, I have to show that the science I want to do is interesting. If I say I want to see what phase the moon is, people will say that is boring and stupid, and they won't waste time on my project. But if I say I want to look for new moons around Pluto because any such moons would help to tell us how Pluto formed, then people might start to think it was interesting.

Second, I have to prove that my project is suited to the telescope I am asking to use. If I try to take a picture of Venus with the Keck 10-meter-wide telescope in Hawaii, there will be so much light I will hurt the cameras, which will make a lot of people mad. Likewise, if I say I want to take a detailed look at super faint galaxies with a tiny telescope, I won't get anything useful, because small telescopes can't see really faint things.

So, observatories ask for proposals to use their telescopes one to four times a year. A group will then get together to evaluate the proposals. Is the science worthwhile? Is the telescope the right one for the job? If so, they'll put me in a schedule to use the telescope. If not, then they'll say "sorry, better luck next time," and I won't get to use the telescope.

As you can guess, being able to write a good proposal is an important skill for astronomers. I've spent several days (most of the last week and many partial days over the past month) working on my proposals to use the Hubble Space Telescope. But my proposal only has about 5 pages of text, plus a couple of graphs. They won't take anything longer, or else the committee that assigns time will have to sift through tens of thousands of pages, as there are often more than 1000 proposals to use the Hubble! That's a lot of reading.

For fun, I'm putting a PDF version an old proposal from 2004. The project got time on the Keck Telescope that fall. You can try and read it if you want, though I will warn you it is technical and quite boring. And you will find a few grammatical mistakes, typos, and stylistic problems. It's amazing how much of that can sneak through even though you've been staring at the same 5 pages for days.

And to those who have sent me emails in the last month, I will get around to answering them now that I am both home and finished with deadlines. I'm sorry it is taking so long.

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