Uncertainty haunts future of Kitt Peak

Telescope Towers on Kitt Peak Photo By: TJ Gibbs/ArizonaSonoraNews

The former astronomical hot spot of the world is finding itself in a battle to remain relevant.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, located about 55 miles southwest of Tucson, was founded in 1958. It is on the Quinlan Mountains on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation and is at an elevation of roughly 7,000 feet.

Director of the observatory Dr. Lori Allen, stated that the observatory has seen a decline in funding of about 30 percent over the past couple of years. The observatory is funded by a combination of the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and NASA.

Kitt Peak primarily receives funding from the National Science Foundation at the moment. According to Allen, the astronomy division of the National Science Foundation has been funded a flat level for the past several years. Due to this, the balance needed to fund the older facilities as well as the new ones, has been leaning toward the newer ones.

2.3m Bok Telescope Tower (Left) and 4m Mayall Telescope Tower on Kitt Peak Photo By: TJ Gibbs/ArizonaSonoraNews

The primary source of funding will be shifting though as Kitt Peak takes on a new project in 2019. According to Allen, Kitt Peak will be using its 4m Mayall telescope to perform a dark energy survey, completely funded by the Department of Energy. Also, NASA is funding a new instrument for the 3.5m WIYN telescope.

Allen stated that the current operations plan at Kitt Peak is set for the next five years or so at their current levels of funding. Tthe future for Kitt Peak after this five year plan is uncertain. Allen hopes that they will have more projects to perform, but finding the funding to perform them is the issue. There are plenty of ideas being put out, but none of them are mature enough to discuss in depth at the moment according to Allen.

View of KPNO Photo By: TJ Gibbs/Arizona Sonora News

The funding process for the National Science Foundation is a reward based system that is broken down into three phases. The first phase is a 90-day process and consists of the opportunity for funding being announced on their website. Proposals are submitted to the National Science Foundation. Once received, the proposals are assigned to the appropriate program for acknowledgement, assuming that the proposal meets the requirements laid out by the National Science Foundation. Some requirements include page limitations, electronic submission, formatting instructions, etc.

Phase two of the process is a six month process dealing with proposal review and processing. Once the reviewers are selected, the proposal goes through a peer review. After completion of the review, a recommendation to award or decline funding is sent to a division director. If the award is declined the organization is notified and can review the reasoning why it was declined. If approved then the recommendation is sent to a grants and agreements officer in the division of grants and agreements.

Once at the office of grants and agreements, the officer will conduct a review of the business, financial and policy implications. Typically speaking awards are given within 30 days after receiving the recommendation to award. After the officer completes their reviews the award is finalized.

Top 5 achievements from Kitt Peak

Kitt Peak has been home to some amazing scientific achievements, according to their website here are some of the best:

  1. First indications of dark matter were discovered here. “Dark matter may dominate over ordinary matter in regulating the dynamics of galaxies and the entire universe,” Kitt Peak stated.
  2. The highest redshift galaxies, or the galaxies that are moving away from us at the highest rate, were discovered here. Because theses galaxies were around so early in the universe, they help us to understand galaxy formation.
  3. Supernovae and planetary nebulae being used as distance indicators help us determine the Hubble constant. This is the rate at which the universe is expanding and not collapsing in on us.
  4. The discovery of a void in the Boötes constellation, lead to early indications of the large scale universe. This discovery lead to reasearch programs that were able to revise previous large scale models.
  5. Observing clusters of galaxies indicated the environment of a galaxy plays a strong role in its evolution. Basically, the density of galaxies impacts the types of stars that form, how far from each other they are, etc.

TJ Gibbs is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at tjgibbs@email.arizona.edu

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