This year I’m traveling more than I think I have ever traveled before. Thursday I’m flying down to Texas to attend AstroFest, which is being hosted by the Swinburne University of Technology and their program Swinburne Astronomy Online. Friday morning I’ll be giving a talk on the Improbable Universe (which I’m going to try and record myself practicing tomorrow using a great new mic one of you wonderful readers – whose going to get a thank you card once I get back) sent me). On Saturday I’ll be giving a workshop on who to put astronomical images on a standard system (expect to see a whole discussion on that popping up here too). Today, I’m just being sleep deprived. (*Whine about why below.)
But, in my sleepiness, I poked through my press releases. One of the things that most caught my attention was congressional testimony and a bill that is in progress concerning the Arecibo radio telescope. The giant scope on Puerto Rico island has starred in films ranging from James Bond to Contact. It is currently slated to be shut down or at least have its usage greatly reduced in 2011. I think it is safe to say no one wants to shut down Arecibo, but, well, it’s old. The scientific community has a very limited budget and if we, as a community, want to build new things, we occasionally have to give up some of our old toys. But – there is a big “Contribute” button on the Arecibo page, and folks are working hard to try and keep this old mission going. Arecibo is still scientifically useful, and it is used as part of the “Big Ear” to detect far off space mission that are sending signals back to Earth. It is also used as an active radar system, and it can send out radio signals to asteroids and other solar system objects to measure. Not a lot of radio telescopes offer the same power and sensitivity.
But we have new questions that Arecibo can’t answer. We have new questions that require new telescopes.
Arecibo isn’t the only telescope that is problematic.
And there is also Hubble … It is up, it is functioning, if it gets refurbished (as planned) by the Space Shuttle, it could last a good long time. But, it is old, and it is scheduled to be shut down perhaps as early as 2010. It is a good telescope, it is doing a good job, and it is getting great science. But we want to build a giant orbiting infrared telescope that can tell us about the beginning of the universe and help us find hot Jupiters. The Space Telescope Science Institute was so awkwardly named so it could take on the control of the new James Webb Space Telescope when it goes on orbit. We, as a community, can’t under current budgets afford both Hubble and Webb.
Choices. It is hard. New questions need new telescopes, but how do you purposely destroy a working instrument?
And that’s what is required if we turn of Hubble or Arecibo. Arecibo would need to be dismantled so the area it now occupies can be returned to its natural state. This means, no more telescope. Hubble will need to either be boosted to a higher orbit or brought down to Earth in a destructive way – in both cases it will no longer work.
There are those that would argue that we need to increase our science budget to allow these old telescopes to keep doing good science while we also build new telescopes to answer questions that we can’t answer with our old equipment. I agree that the science budget should be increased, but … but we can’t keep old things going forever. Sometimes, it is time to move on to newer things.
It is hard and I don’t envy the job of the poor folks who had to testify before congress. Arecibo is beautiful and famous. There are people who are going to want to keep it going just because it is sexy. How do scientists who in their heart probably want to keep Arecibo going explain both why keeping it going would be productive, but why it would be better to close it down and build new facilities. The paper they wrote is as dry but well done as can be achieved. But it still isn’t easy on the heart.
*(This semester I’m teaching a 9am class, and I have one 9am meeting. That means three days out of 7 I’m forced out of bed at 7:30am or earlier (depending on what I need to do before class or meeting). This really isn’t good for my bio-rhythm. I show up to class with a 32 ounce coffee, and am highly grateful that I only give the lecture part of the class half the time (it is a joint physics-chemistry class for elementary ed majors). Last week one colleague popped into the lab shut our door because hist students were about to make a lot of loud noise. He told me latter that the utter look of despair on my face made him not recognize me at first. On Monday another colleague looked in as he walked down the hallway and started shaking violently with laughter because me and my coffee just didn’t have our “game face on.” Two early morning meetings into my week I’m just tired.)