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US astronomy organization plans closure of Arizona scopes

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), an organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that runs a number of major ground-based telescopes, is preparing to furlough its employees in Arizona if the US government shutdown continues past 18 October — but it will keep workers on in Chile.

Telescopes atop Kitt Peak, in Arizona, include the NOAO's 4-metre Mayall telescope (foreground).

Telescopes atop Kitt Peak, in Arizona, include the NOAO’s 4-metre Mayall telescope (foreground).


Chilean labour laws forbid putting employees on involuntary unpaid leave, says David Silva, director of the NOAO. “We are making a triage decision that says we will continue Chilean operations.”

The majority of the NOAO’s budget — US$25.5 million out of $38.2 million for the fiscal year that ended on 30 September — comes from the US National Science Foundation. It is managed through an agreement with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which posted a 9 October update on its website laying out the operational plans for its facilities. The NOAO is the first on the list to be affected by the federal shutdown — a consequence, Silva says, of how the various operating agreements work. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini telescopes, for instance, are listed as good through at least 31 October. “Somebody had to be first,” Silva says.

About two-thirds of the NOAO’s payroll is spent in Arizona, and one-third is spent in Chile. If Arizona employees are furloughed later this month, Silva says that the organization can limp along until the end of November maintaining its contractual obligations in Chile. After that, all bets are off.

In Chile, the NOAO runs the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, which includes the 4-metre Blanco telescope where a dark-energy survey is now under way.

If the NOAO’s Arizona facilities close, a minimal staff will maintain security and keep the properties physically safe, Silva says. This would include telescopes atop the famed Kitt Peak southwest of Tucson, such as the 4-metre Mayall telescope. Other telescopes at Kitt Peak that are not managed by the NOAO would remain open as their operators deem fit. “We will maintain access to the mountain for tenant observatories,” says Silva. Such facilities would include the McMath-Pierce solar telescope that belongs to the National Solar Observatory, which itself may run out of operating funds on 31 October.


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