Casey DreierAug 17, 2012

Astronomy Is Cheap, Too

There was upsetting news today, as the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences released a report that recommended divesting from several highly successful radio telescopes (PDF here, 4.3 MB).

A VLBA radio telescope slated for divestment
A VLBA radio telescope slated for divestment Image: Stevens F. Johnson

These include the world's largest maneuverable radio telescope in Green Bank, the Very Long Baseline Array, spread out over six thousand miles, and several telescopes at the Kitt Peak Observatory, including McMath-Pierce solar telescope, the largest of its kind in the world.

Like almost all of the science-focused agencies, the NSF is facing severe budget pressure in the upcoming years. The report makes several hard choices based on projected funding. It prioritizes new telescopes and individual research grants and small-project funding, which makes sense if you think about that as the best way it can support overall research.

Still, this is heartbreaking. I first used VLBA data back when I was an undergraduate, and remember when the GBT telescope came online to great fanfare. I remember very distinctly going to visit the VLBA telescope pictured above in North Liberty, IA, as a child and being awestruck with the size of it.

It's not clear yet if these telescopes will close down without the money provided by the NSF. NASA funds some of these, and there may be other institutions who will step in to help. Still, this represents a major challenge to each one of these sites.

Oh, but the best part. All of these divestments from these telescopes? The ones that the NSF can no longer afford?

20 million dollars.

That's it. My previous posts about Curiosity being cheap are nothing compared to the chump change needed to continue funding these. There's a gnawing, slow decline of our ability to support science in this country. The fact that major telescopes in their prime of their operating existence can be defunded for the lack of a few million dollars is yet another example.

Maybe we should ask Paul Allen? With half of his fortune he could fund these telescopes for another 350 years or so.

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