“Just as I did some 25 years ago, my graduate student is right now using one of the NOAO telescopes, learning how to do observational astronomy… Closing down one of these observatories in the next few years would likely lead to long term problems with producing adequately prepared astronomers in the future, and they are as necessary to achieving the goals of our decadal reports as any multi-billion dollar facility.” –Adam Stanford, UC Davis
Every week, I come to you so excited to tell you all about some amazing physics or astronomy story, whether it’s something new that’s just been uncovered or something older that’s just as fresh and amazing when you finally understand it. The Universe is a remarkable place, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to both understand its story as well as I do and to be able to bring as much of it to you as I possibly can.
Right now, there are a number of ground-based astronomy projects currently underway that are doing some truly amazing things. The image above, of the distant cluster Abell 3827, was taken by the ground-based Gemini Observatory, where it was discovered that this galactic giant has the mass of 30 trillion Suns, making it the largest galaxy in our local Universe (i.e., within 1.5 billion light-years).
The twin Gemini Observatories — one in Hawaii, above, and the other in Chile — are two of the largest, most advanced astronomical facilities in the world. Getting observing time on Gemini, as you can well imagine, is extraordinarily competitive, as there’s competition not just among extragalactic astronomers, but among those who study stars and nebulae within our own galaxy. With the Gemini telescope and its adaptive optics technology, incredible detail of young stars within a spectacular nebula — like the Orion Nebula — can be imaged like never before.
And even closer to us, planetary astronomers can take full advantage of a telescope like Gemini in order to spectacularly image objects in our own Solar System. I bet you’ve never seen a timelapse photo of Pluto that shows its moon, Charon, orbiting it! But Gemini’s got you covered there, too, as it was one of the earliest things it did, all the way back in 1999.
Of course, Gemini is just one example of a cutting-edge, completed facility doing amazing research and taking amazing pictures. The field of observational astronomy has arguably done more to shed light (both visible and invisible) on the mysteries of the Universe than any other science!
And there are new things that we’re learning all the time. For example, while the Hubble Space Telescope (in blue light, below) shows us where stars and visible light are, it cannot show us where the dense, cold gas is that will form the next generation of stars! But — in the yellows and reds below — it’s there.
That’s thanks to ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Consisting of 66 radio telescopes up to 39½ feet in diameter (no, really!), ALMA will — when completed at the end of 2012 — be able to provide resolutions up to ten times better than the VLA and up to five times better than even the Hubble Space Telescope!
But it isn’t complete yet; the above is an artist’s rendition! (That why the resolution isn’t yet as good as Hubble’s; only 12 of the 66 telescopes were operational at the time the composite image of the antennae galaxies was created!) Compared to ALMA’s costs in 2011, it will take an additional $12 million to keep the project on schedule.
At the same time, we want to continue to look to the future, and that means getting ready to build the LSST, a wide-field, fast-imaging and high-resolution survey. And finally, we’ve got older, smaller facilities with large numbers of smaller telescopes: the perfect places for younger astronomers (undergraduates and graduate students) to train, apprentice, and learn how to observe! Those of you with an interest in astronomy may have even heard of some of them, like Kitt Peak.
Facilities like Kitt Peak are invaluable for the education they provide. Telescope time is too scarce and competitive at the absolute top-of-the-line observatories to accept everyone’s proposals. Thankfully, not only does some very good and highly impactful research go on at smaller observatories, but it’s where all the top observers go to learn the tricks of their trade. Remember what the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for this year? Observational astronomy. And two of the telescopes on Kitt Peak played a prominent role in that research. The telescopes may only be up to 4 meters in diameter, but they can still produce some amazing things.
From spectacularly bright objects like galaxies and galaxy groups/clusters, above, all the way down to incredibly faint nebulae, like IC 5067, below, just taken recently.
With all the observatories that the United States has a hand in worldwide, from staffing to operation and maintenance, as well as all the facilities currently being built and/or upgraded, I’d be curious to know how much you think the U.S. government spends on ground-based astronomy annually? (Not counting the space-based portion that NASA handles.)
I’m asking you, in other words, what you think the National Science Foundation’s budget is for all of Astronomy Research and Related Activities. You’ve seen some of what astronomy is doing, where it’s going and what it’s producing. How much do you think we’re spending to accomplish all this?
In order to keep going with the Gemini-like facilities we have and to complete the ALMA-scale projects that we’ve already committed to, as well as to keep up with inflation, astronomy needed a 2% increase in 2011 (over 2010), and then roughly constant levels (actually a 1% decrease would have been okay) from 2011 to 2012.
What were the total numbers? For those of you curious, take a look:
These numbers come directly from the NSF’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, specifically from the presentation of James Ulvestad. Despite only having a paltry budget of ~$250 million (or about equal to the least valuable team in the NBA), we’ve been able to accomplish so much! And despite an unbelievable record of accomplishment, there’s currently no funding for the LSST, and NOAO and Kitt Peak in particular face the prospect of having to close. You can read the 2012 budget for yourself and see if anything looks too “extravagant” in there. If we’re serious about our rhetoric about being the “greatest nation in the world” and a leader in science, what are we doing spending less than 6 billion dollars on Research and Related Activities for the entire National Science Foundation, with not even a bargain-basement NBA team’s worth of cash for astronomy?
If you’re not outraged, read what actual astronomy professionals are saying. They’ve done so much with so little, and now, even as they do more than ever before, that’s being taken away.
Think you can do something about it? Either grab the reins and become head of the NSF’s astronomy division or let your Senators and Congresspersons know that the House and Senate both have it wrong; investing that little extra in science now — and it is so little — will make all the difference for generations to come. I don’t expect you to get me anything for the holidays, but if you’re going to get me anything, get me this.
Write. Advocate. Make a difference. At the very least, sign my stupid petition. It’s a gift not just to me, but to the entire country, and the entire world. And it’s worth $1 from every US citizen to make it happen.