Logistics affects all phases of a telescope project, from site selection to construction to operation. They determine how difficult it will be to test and develop the site, as well as to provide support and access after the telescope’s completion. Here are a few things to consider.
Caption. The trials of early development on Kitt Peak are clear in this picture of an old Jeep struggling up the old road to the summit. The very first survey work had to be carried out on horse-back, as even this rudimentary road did not then exist.
How accessible is the site? If it is close to an existing facility, then it will be cheaper to get workers, parts and equipment to the site. Is there a road to the site already, or will one have to be built? The cost of building a road will have to be included in the overall budget.
Caption: This image show construction of the 2.1-meter telescope on Kitt Peak. Image taken 6/3/1960.
Is there a skilled workforce nearby or will one have to be brought in from a great distance? This includes not only construction workers, bur also astronomers and technical staff to run the observatory after its completion. For example, one of the advantages of Kitt Peak as a site when a location for the National Observatory was being sought in the 1950s, the nearness of Tucson and the University of Arizona as a source of astronomers and a technical work force was considered a plus. Remember that at remote sites, dormatories, shops, and offices will have to be built. If there is no community within reasonable commuting distance, an “astronomy village” will have to be built to provide homes for the permanent staff.
The motivation to have as little atmosphere as possible between a telescope and the planets and stars one wishes to observe leads astronomers to consider ever higher altitudes for their telescopes. The telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea are at an elevation of 4200 meters (14,000 ft). Telescopes on the high Chajnantor Plateau in Chile are at 5050 meters (16,500 ft), and a few instruments have been placed at elevations of 5800 meters (19,000 ft). Such high elevations make special problems for astronomers, support staff, and construction workers.
The low oxygen pressure at high altitudes affects a person’s ability to concentrate, to perform simple tasks, or even to sleep properly. Altitude sickness for people used to living near sea level begins at around 2400 meters (8000 ft). Oxygen supplements are helpful (some would say needed) at elevations of 4000 meters or more (stories abound of the antics of oxygen-deprived astronomers on the summit of Mauna Kea), and are more or less required at elevations above about 5000 meters. Planning an observatory at high elevations requires consideration of inclusion and cost of oxygen supplements at the site or remote control of observing functions (though even automatic observatories need to be build and serviced by humans).
Mines and manufacturing plants create dust, smoke and light pollution. Dust is a particular problem for telescopes as it will settle on the mirror, reducing its effectiveness over time, forcing the mirror to be cleaned at more frequent intervals. Dust also gets into motors, bearings and other moving parts, requiring more frequent maintenance and replacement. Dust can also be a health hazard for the observatory staff. See the section on Light Pollution for problems with excess light.
Information about most of the logistical issues can be obtained by “visiting” each site in Google.Earth or Google.Maps. Zoom into the site and look for roads near or the site. Zoom out and look for nearby observatories—if one already exists nearby, that will make accessing and supplying the site easier. Look for nearby mines, factories and towns to search for sources of staff support and potential sources of dust and light pollution.