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Star pilots

Pointing telescopes is their business, finding stars their mission

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Twilight has barely stretched an indigo veil over the southern Arizona sky when astronomer Kenneth Hinkle swivels his chair to face a bearded figure at the control panel of the closest machine humanity has to a star ship.

"Let's try Alpha Tauri," he says.

"Alpha Tauri it is," comes the reply.

With the tap of a keyboard and click of a mouse, Hal Halbedel triggers a delicate ballet between a massive telescope and its protective 100-ton dome.

As the dome's opening and the telescope's mirror align, the shimmering star - the bull's eye in the constellation Taurus - appears on a TV monitor, and Mr. Halbedel begins to tweak the telescope's focus.

"Ooh, you're good," Dr. Hinkle says with a grin.

"Hey, I do this for a living," Halbedel replies, smiling.

Indeed, if you have a star, nebula, or galaxy you need to visit, Halbedel is one of a small group of people worldwide who will get you there. Known by various titles, most of them polite, these modern-day Han Solos are linchpins of astronomy. Many headline-grabbing discoveries would never be made without mountaintop star pilots, who must act as technicians, weather forecasters, and (unlike Han Solo) diplomats, as well as operate telescopes.

"You can't overstate what these people do. They are absolutely critical," says Ben Oppenheimer, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley. "They don't get much credit, but they can make or break a research project."

For theorists who spend their time trying to explain how the cosmos works, a computer, white board, markers, and a stack of results from others' observing runs are their stock in trade. For observational astronomers, however, the currency is telescope time.

Competition for time "on the sky" is fierce. For example, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, which runs telescopes in Chile and Hawaii as well as at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, gets requests for an average of three to four times more nights on its glass than are available.

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