Image: Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope
The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, is one of those on the potential chopping block. It is the largest steerable radio telescope in the world, observing 86 planetary systems that may contain Earth-like planets in hopes of detecting signals from intelligent civilizations.
updated 8/17/2012 8:41:00 PM ET 2012-08-18T00:41:00

A newly released report from a National Science Foundation committee offers some hard-hitting news, with recommendations to cut funding to several iconic telescopes and astronomical facilities as part of an aggressive new path for the agency over the next decade.

The report, titled "Advancing Astronomy in the Coming Decade: Opportunities and Challenges," examines all the projects that fall under the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST), and identifies changes that need to be made over the next 10 years to cope with the increasingly constrained budgetary climate.

"The emphasis of portfolio review is to maintain balance between grants and facilities, recognizing the important role that both play in astronomical research," Daniel Eisenstein, chair of the portfolio review committee and a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., told reporters in a news briefing Friday.

  1. Space news from
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

The panel concluded that NSF should discontinue funding for the following astronomical facilities:

  • 2.1 meter telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona
  • Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO (WIYN) Observatory in Arizona
  • Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia
  • Very Long Baseline Array in New Mexico
  • McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope in Arizona

"Retaining the above facilities in the face of declining budgets risks significantly greater shortfalls, which would be a far more severe loss to the forward momentum of the field," the committee said in its report.

A difficult balancing act
The recommended cuts will help make way for new, state-of-the-art facilities and midsize projects, and will also ensure that NSF maintains a strong grants program.

"Divestment from these highly successful, long-running facilities will be difficult for all of us in the astronomical community," the report said. "We must, however, consider the science tradeoff between divesting existing facilities and the risk of devastating cuts to individual research grants, mid-scale projects, and new initiatives." [ Planetary Science Takes a Hit in 2013 (Infographic) ]

The assessments were made based on priorities that were outlined in the National Academy of Sciences' decadal surveys of astronomy and astrophysics (titled "New World, New Horizons," or NWNH) and planetary sciences (titled "Visions and Voyages," or V&V). The surveys, which were released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, represent consensus from the scientific community, and identify specific science goals and objectives for the next decade.

The 17-member NSF panel attempted to reconcile the main objectives from the decadal surveys with what will likely be realistic given the NSF's budget projections.

"Our committee was charged to consider the priorities set by the decadal surveys and to set priorities between those new initiatives and the current programs and facilities, and to do so within the significant budget constraints," Eisenstein said.

Tightening the NSF's belt
The NSF's budget request for the fiscal year 2013 totals $7.37 billion, which would increase the agency's funding by $340 million, or 4.8 percent, from the previous year. Over the next decade, however, all signs point to little budget growth, if any. As such, the panel was tasked with determining how the NSF can best continue to facilitate valuable science within a tighter economic climate.

The panelists made their recommendations based on two budgetary scenarios: a more status quo approach, in which the AST's budget is 65 percent of what was envisioned in the decadal surveys, and a more pessimistic view in which the AST's budget is only 50 percent that.

According to the committee, the Division of Astronomical Sciences 2012 budget is already $45 million short of what was projected for the fiscal year 2012 in the astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey that was released in 2010.

"This presents a considerable challenge in implementing the strong NWNH recommendations for both new facilities and for maintaining the strength of the grants programs," the report said. "AST must find the proper balance between current facilities and new endeavors between large projects and small grants, and between risk and reward. It must continue to invest in the training of a highly skilled and creative workforce."

The Associated Universities Inc. and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory,, which operate the Green Bank Telescope and the Very Long Baseline Array, responded to the report's findings.

"AUI and NRAO recognize and acknowledge the need to retire obsolete facilities to make way for the state-of-the-art," officials said in a statement.

"However, both the GBT and the VLBA are the state-of-the-art, and have crucial capabilities that cannot be provided by other facilities. Separately the two telescopes provide unparalleled scientific access to the universe. When their information is combined, the instruments provide the highest sensitivity and resolution available for any astronomical instrument in the world." [ Photos: World's Largest Telescope Being Built in Chile ]

Some good news, too
Still, it's not all doom and gloom.

The report's findings do not automatically shutter the five identified facilities, said James Ulvestad, director of the National Science Foundation's Division of Astronomical Sciences.

"The committee is basically advisory," Ulvestad said. "They provide recommendations to the NSF, and we, in our division, then take that report and provide recommendations that pass up through our various chains of command."

The results of these discussions will shape the NSF's budget proposal process. In the meantime, the agency will also look into potential partnerships with universities and other organizations that would enable these facilities to stay open.

"We fully intend to pursue those avenues rigorously before we go down any roads to closure," Ulvestad said.

The committe also identified programs that should be expanded, and new projects that should be seen as priorities over the next decade. For instance, the panel urged NSF to begin construction of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) as soon as possible. The $465 million LSST is a planned wide-field telescope that will be able to observe the entire available sky ever three nights from Chile.

The committee proposed developing a new program for midscale projects — ones costing between $3 million and $50 million — that address the goals set forth in the decadal surveys.

The report also pledges continued support for other major facilities, including the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, and the Arecibo Observatory.

"While the current economic climate poses a severe challenge, we remain optimistic in our belief that the AST portfolio will be a vibrant force for astronomical research in the next decade," the report concluded.

Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook  and Google+.

© 2013 All rights reserved. More from

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments