Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Proposal season

For many observational astronomers, the next few weeks are one of the busiest times of the year. Several observatories, including the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (they run Kitt Peak, Gemini on Mauna Kea, and some Chilean telescopes, and pay for some nights at other facilities), McDonald Observatory, Steward Observatory, Lick Observatory and Keck Observatory (to name just a few), all have deadlines for telescope proposals between now and the first week of October.

Telescope proposals are when astronomers put forward our ideas for what we would like to look at with a telescope over the next 4-6 months. We have to write a fairly short but detailed document explaining what science we want to do, how the particular telescope we are asking to use can do that science, why no other telescope is better, how much time we need to do the science, and why we are the best astronomer(s) to do that science. All of that in just 4-6 pages!

Most telescopes will get requests for 2 or 3 times more telescope time than is actually available. It's a lot worse for some telescopes, like the Keck telescopes or the Hubble telescopes, where astronomers tend to ask for 5 to 10 times more time than possible. It is up to the Time Allocation Committee, or TAC, to decide which proposals get time. This task starts with a ranking of the best science, but it also includes intense discussion of feasibility of projects and how to resolve conflicts (perhaps two astronomers want to look at the same target for the same reason, or perhaps everybody wants time in April and nobody wants time in June). Being a TAC member is a lot like being a referee in sports. You do the best you can; often you do an excellent job, sometimes you have to make close calls without all the information, and sometimes you screw up. In the end, everyone complains about the TACs and how they messed up. But few people are willing to serve on TACs, because you have to read through dozens of proposals that are often poorly written or missing crucial information, and then you have to sit in a small room for 1 or two days arguing with other TAC members over proposals. It's a thankless task. So, I will be focusing in the next few weeks on writing several proposals that try to give the TAC what they need to fall in love with my science. It's no fun, but it's part of the job.

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