Friday, January 11, 2008

Last day of the American Astronomical Society Meeting

Today is the last day of the 211th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas. The last day always winds down pretty quickly -- I expect to see the crowds much lighter today, and, after lunch, the convention center will be virtually vacant.

Yesterday, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) released their report on the future of smaller telescopes within the NOAO structure. "Small" here refers to diameters less than about 4 meters, or about 13 feet. And the NOAO structure refers to telescopes operated primarily by a budget from the National Science Foundation.

In an era when ever-larger telescopes seem to dominate the scene, small telescopes owned by NOAO have been suffering from both declining use and declining budgets (which leads to fewer cutting-edge instruments and increasing structural problems, which leads to fewer users, which leads to budget cuts, which leads to less upkeep, which leads to more problems, and so on). And a recurring question has been whether to close these telescopes, or to devote more resources to them.

Last year, a major report on the future of National Science Foundation astronomy budgets recommended that NOAO study how to best utilize small telescopes and bring them up-to-date. Robotic telescopes or remotely-operated telescopes could allow observers to stay home (saving money that would otherwise be spent on travel, or money that may not exist for travel) and observe from home. Eliminating redundant capabilities would allow new instruments to be built for existing telescopes from money that would otherwise go to maintaining the redundant instrument. There were many other suggestions; the NSF report left it up to NOAO to decide what to do.

Yesterday, the NOAO report was released to the community. It covered this variety of topics, and appears to be a well-planned roadmap to refurbishing and revitalizing small telescopes. The main problem may come from the budgets being even smaller than the committee assumed. As I said a few days ago, the astronomy budget picture is bleak. Some telescopes may have to be closed, but, as the committee pointed out, we can't afford to keep everything open and still modernize.

I am happy that the entire astronomy community came together to help with this report. Astronomy on big telescopes relies on work done on smaller telescopes. Big telescopes should only tackle problems that require a big telescope; there are many interesting problems that can be solved on smaller telescopes. And, by having such a nice roadmap, we can now begin to prioritize and bring small telescopes out of the 20th century into the 21st century.

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