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.”

In Other News…

Cyber Expert Wins FBI Community Leadership Award

Robert R. Wells, special agent in charge of the Charlotte Division of the FBI has chosen a local cyber expert as the 2020 Director’s Community Leadership Award (DCLA) recipient for North Carolina. Torry Crass has been an invaluable partner to the FBI Charlotte field office since 2013.

2021 AUI Scholarship Recipients

Below are the fourteen winners of the 2021 AUI Scholarship conducted by International Scholarship and Tuition Services, Inc. These students will each receive an award of $3,500 per year to aid in defraying expenses at the college or university of their choice.

ITL Development Director: “We are convinced that our proposal is solid and meets all the requirements”

In an interview with Nueva Mining and Energy Magazine, Ricardo Raineri, Director of Development of the Chilean Institute of Clean Technologies (ITL) refers to the criticism that has hovered over Corfo’s decision, arguing that “it is essential to understand and emphasize that our proposal is based on an open platform model ”.

West Virginia Students Contact International Space Station LIVE

Friday, May 7th at 8:00 AM EDT, students in rural West Virginia will experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. Green Bank Elementary-Middle School (GBEMS) will be contacting astronaut Mark Vande Hei on the International Space Station (ISS).

The Universe just Became More Accessible: Free Software for Exploring the Universe Through Sound

Today free software has been released to help the blind and visually impaired (BIV) explore the universe through sound. With the support from the National Science Foundation’s STEM+C program, Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy (IDATA) brought together nearly 200 BIV and sighted students, teachers, astronomers and programmers from across the Nation to create this innovative software called Afterglow Access.

Nueva Mineria covers the importance of ICTL’s Open Science model pioneered by AUI

The ICTL is a Chilean clean technology institute that is committed to developing innovations in the mining, power, battery, manufacturing, and related industrial sectors. The Open Science model allows a larger community to access R&D facilities based on the merit of their proposals.

VIDEO: Multi-wavelength Observations Reveal Impact of Black Hole on M87 Galaxy

In 2019, a worldwide collaboration of scientists used a global collection of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) to make the first-ever image of a black hole — the supermassive black hole at the core of the galaxy M87, some 55 million light-years from Earth.

ACEAP Alumna Selected as Astronaut for SpaceX

Sian Procter, a participant in the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program (ACEAP) in 2016, has been selected as an astronaut by SpaceX. The Inspiration4 mission, scheduled to launch sometime after 15 September 2021, will orbit Earth for three days and conduct a variety of experiments.

New Images Reveal Magnetic Structures Near Supermassive Black Hole

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — the worldwide collaboration that produced the first image of a black hole in 2019 — has produced a new image showing details of the magnetic fields in the region closest to the supermassive black hole at the core of the galaxy M87. The new work is providing astronomers with important clues about how powerful jets of material can be produced in that region.

After Long Shutdown, Giant Radio Telescope Array Set to Resume Observations

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a set of 66 radio astronomy dishes perched high in the Chilean Andes, was hit hard by the pandemic. It shut down on 22 March 2020 and has remained silent ever since—far longer than most scientific facilities....

You are now leaving AUI

You will be redirected to the related partnering organization's website.

You will be redirected to
in 4 seconds...

Click the link above to continue or CANCEL