Aside from Kitt Peak's three largest telescopes, the divest-it list includes a gleaming white, 328-foot-diameter radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Greenbank, W. Va., facility – dedicated 12 years ago and built at a cost of nearly $60 million. Four other scientifically productive telescopes or telescope arrays scopes are on the list as well.
Grappling with the issue wasn't easy, notes Debra Fischer, a Yale University astronomer who served on the advisory panel making the recommendations. Federally funded observatories serve as portals to the universe for a large number of astronomers who don't populate the faculties of universities with fiscal angels or pockets sufficiently deep to build their own observatories.
Still, "at the end of the day, I feel like we're protecting science for the next generation, even though it hurts right now," she says.
At their broadest, the recommendations reflect two fundamental but related changes in astronomy.
One is the move into what University of Wisconsin astronomer Jay Gallagher as well as others have called the era of "big science."
The easy questions about the birth and evolution of the universe from its grandest to its smallest scales have been answered. The remaining questions are tougher. They require bigger telescopes in space and on the ground to spot the most distant, hence fainest, objects. And they require increasingly sophisticated instruments bolted to the back ends of those telescopes to help astronomers convert that faint light into answers.
The bigger the telescope, the bigger the price tag.