The shutdown could soon block telescopes’ view of the heavens

January 23 at 2:49 PM

Mammoth telescopes and observatories that scout the sky for traces of supernova explosions and probe the universe’s 14-billion-year history are preparing to power down as the political impasse over a border wall keeps parts of the government shut down.

A 13-story telescope perched high in the mountains of northern Chile and an antenna array in the New Mexico desert are just two observatory instruments that will be forced into standby mode if the government is still closed in mid-February. Hundreds of highly skilled workers will also be furloughed, with no guarantee of back pay, because they’re contractors, observatory directors say. And the shutdown’s impact will almost certainly reverberate beyond their lives as research projects aimed at broadening human understanding of the cosmos are put on hold.

“If the sky is clear and the nights are dark, there is no reason to not be using this powerful telescope,” Scott Sheppard, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, said of the Blanco four-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, a National Science Foundation-funded facility.

Unless the government reopens, the observatory will cease its nightly surveys in February — the first time its scientific operations will have stopped during a shutdown. It will be “a big loss of science in general,” Sheppard said.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates a network of telescopes across the United States and in Chile, would also have to furlough 350 to 400 employees in mid-February. Most equipment will be put into a safe mode and maintained by a skeleton staff, but Chilean operations and national security functions will continue, according to observatory director Tony Beasley.

“Our prediction is the first time the monthly paychecks don’t come, we’ll see our staff getting jobs elsewhere,” Beasley said. “For highly trained, specialized staff, it will be straightforward for most of them to get jobs in industry — and take us three years to rebuild. It gets weird and difficult really fast.”

Future operations of the Gemini Observatory, with sites in Hawaii and Chile; the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is under construction in Chile; the National Optical Astronomy Observatory sites in Arizona and Chile; and the National Solar Observatory in Hawaii are in doubt.

“Although we have sufficient funds on hand to continue operations in the short term, we cannot continue in perpetuity under this partial shutdown,” the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, a nonprofit group that runs the NSF-funded facilities, said in a statement. “As we exhaust the existing funding on hand, we will need to scale back or halt operations altogether.”

Typical shutdown plans for large instruments such as telescopes are designed for a month-long closure, said Angela Wilson, a chemistry professor at Michigan State University who directed the NSF’s chemistry division from 2016 to 2018. As the shutdown stretched into Day 33 on Wednesday, “we’re going to begin to see more and more of the scientific facilities begin to shut down.”

“Getting this back on track is not just turning a light switch back on and everything’s fine,” she added.

At the Cerro Tololo observatory in Chile, a few dozen of the 120 staff members will be permitted to work by mid-February. The facility is responsible for maintaining the electric power lines and Internet connections that serve the remote observatory and other telescopes clustered on nearby peaks. Director Stephen R. Heathcote predicts that closing the observatory would affect operations at the neighboring Gemini Observatory, which is run by an international consortium, as well as the construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

“Staff really are gung-ho to keep things running as long as they can,” Heathcote said. “We will do what we can, but at some point we won’t be able to continue.”

The observatory normally assigns a team of about 10 people per telescope to monitor and maintain sensitive tools. Despite high demand for nighttime surveys from astronomers around the world — the observatory receives double the requests it can schedule — no data can be collected while the facility is closed. Still, three people will remain assigned to each telescope and its attendant instruments, Heathcote said.

The powerful, $35 million Dark Energy Camera, mounted on the Blanco four-meter telescope, must be kept chilled to minus-150 degrees, and its sensors must be protected from condensation by a vacuum.

“We have to have at least somebody around 24/7 to monitor the system,” Heathcote said. It is unclear whether these observatory workers will get paid, he said, because they are contracted by the NSF rather than employed by it.

The Blanco four-meter telescope “is one of the main telescopes we use in our survey that is going deeper and covering more sky for outer solar-system objects than any past survey,” said Sheppard, who returned from the Chilean observatory last week.

The astronomer and his colleagues recently used the telescope to find the farthest-orbiting object observed in our solar system, as well as new dwarf planets beyond Pluto. Their team is scheduled to continue its survey in March.

Telescopes in New Mexico recently moved into the correct orientation to take part in the second stage of the Very Large Array Sky Survey, collecting observations to create the most detailed map yet of 10 million celestial bodies emitting radio waves — including supernova explosions, gamma-ray bursts and collisions of neutron stars.

If the shutdown isn’t resolved quickly, the opportunity to make those observations could get pushed back a year and a half, Beasley said.

“Being good at shutdowns is part of being a good modern observatory director at this point,” Beasley said. “If we move into that total shutdown mode and it’s a small period of time, I think the damage is not insignificant but relatively confined. But if we go in for periods of weeks or months, there’d be a lot of collateral damage.”

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