Small Telescopes - Looking to the Future

(Extracted from NOAO Newsletter Number 49 March 1997)


In October, Lowell Observatory hosted a meeting on "Small Telescopes"; in January, AURA and NOAO sponsored a workshop on small telescopes in conjunction with the AAS meeting in Toronto. What follows is informed by, if not inspired by, the discussion at both these meetings.

The case for front-line research remaining to be done with small telescopes was made very clear in the meeting at Lowell, which was attended by a variety of users and operators of small telescopes and also by representatives from NSF, NOAO, and AURA. Some of those presenting papers at that meeting have sent abstracts for posting on the NOAO web site (www.noao.edu). At the Toronto workshop, the emphasis was on identifying future roles for the smaller KPNO telescopes taking into account the complementary contributions that are or can be made by the independently owned telescopes of similar aperture. A full report on that workshop will be posted at the NOAO web site no later than early February.

The primary mission of NOAO, according to NSF and its advisory bodies, is to provide world-class facilities for all users. This emphasizes facilities that few or no other US institutions can provide, whether because the cost is prohibitive or for reasons of location or required size of scientific staff needed to operate and justify the operation of a large private facility. I would hope that it is an easy item for consensus that all US astronomers should have the opportunity to apply for time on fully competitive facilities, with observing time distributed purely on the basis of the quality of the science proposed.

Unfortunately, tight budgets together with the above priority make it necessary to reduce NOAO's responsibility for running smaller, less unique, facilities. The budget is forcing choices that are not justified on the basis of the science being carried out on the smaller telescopes - this science is still competitive and unique. The problem confronting NOAO and AURA for the past few years has been how to work effectively within the constraints of tight budgets and without cutting off those services that must be provided to maintain the vitality of US astronomy-including that important source of vitality that comes from the wide geographical and institutional distribution of astronomers.

Both of the workshops mentioned at the start of this report highlighted one aspect of the solution: There are a large number of modest-aperture telescopes in the hands of astronomers in the US, including both smaller telescopes operated by professionals in a wide range of institutions and also some of the larger, well-equipped amateur telescopes. Some successful programs and projects have already been built on such resources: projects such as the Harvard redshift survey, the MACHO searches, and the Whole Earth Telescope have used small telescopes individually or in networks to carry out front-line projects made possible by modern computerized data handling. Through AAVSO and IAPPP professional and amateur observers have contributed monitoring, early-warning, and other support services for big-telescope and space-based observing programs. A few years ago, Jason Cardelli initiated the North American Small Telescopes Cooperative, NASTeC, a loose network of small telescopes making some time available on a cooperative basis; this is now being managed by H. Preston at Valdosta (web page accessible through the NOAO site or at http://www.valdosta.peachnet.edu/~hpreston/sara/nastec.html ). Ideas such as obtaining better prices for standard instruments through group purchases are very appealing. The importance of such coordinating efforts is increasing. At one of the next AAS meetings there will be an opportunity for members of such networks and consortia to meet and discuss issues of mutual benefit; that is being organized by T. Oswalt.

Both the changes taking place at NOAO as larger groundbased facilities come on line and the gradual development of cooperative networks of privately owned facilities suggest that the role of the smaller telescopes at Kitt Peak, at least, would be evolving even without the budget pressures. In looking over current use for the KPNO telescopes, and looking ahead to what will be needed when Gemini comes on line, several key functions currently served by these smaller telescopes were identified:

Support of observations made with larger, groundbased facilities is generally considered to be a part of the primary mission of NOAO to provide state-of-the-art observing facilities by open access, and so there will be continued discussion (and a workshop this spring sponsored in part by the Gemini project) to identify the nature and number of telescopes this will require. Also, while there are short-term front-line research projects being carried out now primarily on small telescopes, most of these are expected to move to larger aperture facilities as the mean telescope size continues to increase. The emphasis of the Toronto workshop was therefore on the other functions: support for research at other wavelengths, support for education, and "big projects."

Another point made clearly at both of the workshops on small telescopes was that a number of different ways of building and operating such facilities are being experimented with or used in the community. Quite possibly some of these alternative modes of operation could be used as part of a plan to make effective future use of the smaller NOAO telescopes that will no longer be used and supported as they have been in the past.

A good way to get good ideas is to have many good brains thinking about a problem. In this case, the workshops provided one opportunity to collect good ideas. The next step will be a more formal announcement of opportunity from NOAO for proposals for the future use and operation of the smaller telescopes, with the 1.3-m telescope available now as a test case. Based on the discussions at the workshops plus ideas collected from other sources, this AO is likely to list as variables for consideration all of the following:

An issue not discussed at great length at either workshop, but clearly a part of the strategy for maintaining community access to the resources needed for competitive research programs, is the evolving role of key archival data sets. Some archival data sets have provided great opportunities for new activity - for example, IRAS, Einstein, IUE and increasingly HST archives. The searches for massive compact halo objects are yielding a tremendous collection of data on stellar variability. AAVSO archives now provide 100 years of data on variable stars. The Palomar Sky Survey is another example. It would be useful to have a systematic set of answers to questions such as: What characterizes data sets that are useful for archival research? What kinds of support are needed for effective archives? What data archives are likely to be available for research in the next decade? Are there sources of data that should be being archived but are not? Are there major surveys that should be undertaken in order to enable archival research? Also, in the same context, it would be important to examine the role of observations made with telescopes of various apertures in conjunction with archival research - it may be that following up on leads derived from archival research makes archival research contribute more to the demand for telescope time than it releases by providing an alternative opportunity. A workshop on this topic could be both timely and interesting.

Lee Anne Willson, AURA Observatories Council


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