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Astronomy panel puts six ageing observatories on the block

Harry Morton / NRAO

Wanted: a responsible operator for a radio telescope, 110 metres wide. Rebuilt in 2000. Nestled in the scenic woods of West Virginia. Capable of measuring the pulsing heartbeat of collapsed stars with incredible precision.

The Green Bank Telescope (pictured) — the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world — is one of six facilities that the US National Science Foundation (NSF) will try to divest itself of, after a panel of astronomers on Thursday released its grim recommendations for how the NSF’s astronomy division should navigate gloomy budget scenarios.

The review panel found that, in order to pay for coveted future facilities like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, some of the agency’s older hardware should find new operators by 2017. The other telescopes are: the Mayall, the Wisconsin-Indian-Yale-NOAO (WIYN), the Kitt Peak 2.1-Metre, the Very Long Baseline Array and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope.

“Something has to be displaced,” says Daniel Eisenstein, an astronomer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and chair of the 17-person panel.

NSF astronomy division director Jim Ulvestad points out that divestiture does not mean closure; he will try to find new operators for the facilities in the next 18 months. If no one steps up, only then would the NSF begin planning to close the telescopes.

Eisenstein says that the pain will also be felt by grant-seeking astronomers. Under the most pessimistic budget scenario, Ulvestad says that the panel’s recommendations would probably result in grant success rates dropping from an already historically low rate of 14% to between 10% and 12%.

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