Kitt Peak and Small Telescopes


Early Days and the Smaller Telescopes

From the NOAO website:

What was the reason for founding a National Observatory in the United States? Prior to the 1950s, research astronomers only had access to the scientific facilities available through the particular institution with which they were affiliated. Therefore, a faculty member teaching at a major university might be able work with a more powerful, better equipped telescope than a colleague at a smaller school. There was no equal access to the best research facilities.
Following World War II, the United States entered the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The successful launching of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, by the Soviets, was a major catalyst for the formation of a national space program, and its obvious partner, astronomy research.
At that time, numerous astronomers petitioned the federal government for funds to build a research center available to the entire astronomy community, a National Observatory.
... Opened in March 1960, the National Science Foundation's 0.9-meter telescope was the first major telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.
In 1966 a second 0.9m telescope was opened on Kitt Peak, just east of the original. Both operated until 1990, when the original 0.9m site was cleared for use by the WIYN 3.5m telescope (on the left). The first 0.9m telescope was then moved into the No. 2 dome (right). The second 0.9m was moved to a northern location on Kitt Peak, and operations were assumed by the SARA consortium.
Constructed in the early 1960s and seeing first light on September 15, 1964, the 2.1-meter (84-inch) telescope was one of the earliest Kitt Peak telescopes.

NOAO and Small Telescopes

NOAO is an observatory "available to the entire astronomy community". That is its whole reason for existence.

If NOAO at Kitt Peak had expanded its telescope complement by adding larger instruments as technology made them more affordable, that would have been one thing.

But NOAO has neglected its smaller telescopes. The National Observatory now controls zero one-meter class telescopes, down from two in 1970.

Today, the optical telescopes at Kitt that are controlled by the National Observatory are the Mayall 4-meter, the WIYN 3.5 meter (40% -- the rest is owned by Wisconsin, Indiana and Yale), and the 2.1 meter. And recently the Mayall has been partly taken over by Clemson and the U of Maryland. And as of the summer of 2014 the 2.1 meter is "up for sale".

This occurred due to budget-squeeze as NOAO attempted to use its taxpayer funding to construct giant telescopes like Gemini. There is a natural desire to "keep up with the big boys", but sometimes it conflicts with one's charter.

In the MIRA (Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy) newsletter of Spring 2014, there is a good discussion of the demise of Kitt Peak, with the headline "Kitt Peak National Observatory on the block?" and the sub-head "Several of the most productive American telescopes of the twentieth century are in danger of being closed. Dr Bruce Weaver explains why astronomers have only themselves to blame". I recommend the whole article, here's a good quote:

Large instruments, whether they be super colliders or extraordinarily large telescopes, have associated with them an endless litany of superlatives: farthest, smallest, oldest, faintest, ... These are interesting properties of studies but, when constantly used, make funders deaf to science requests that don’t use these words. Very simply, astronomers have been claiming for decades now that only the largest, most expensive telescopes can reach the superlatives. Now funding agencies believe them and major observatory facilities like Lick on Mt. Hamilton and Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Arizona may soon be closed. The proposed rescheduling of the KPNO funds to fund some small fraction of the cost of an extremely large telescope is particularly onerous as the initial concept for KPNO was to provide a national telescope facility for the many astronomers at universities that could not afford major telescope facilities or that were located east of the Rockies where the atmospheric conditions obviate much optical astronomy. They’ve closed all the smaller telescopes and their biggest ones, like the 4-meter, are expected to be closed as well.

A related paper at MIRA is "Funding of the Essential Synergy between Small and Large Telescopes"

The demise of the smaller telescopes damaged NOAO's role in being the "National Observatory" and providing telescope support to the colleges and researchers of the United States that could not afford to create and maintain a telescope facility of their own. Astronomy news-groups in the 1990s often bemoaned the end of the availability of the Kitt 0.9 meter telescopes.

That "is where I came in". I noticed the remarks, attended the Lowell Conference on Small Telescopes in 1996 (see my article on smaller telescopes), and began to wonder what a correct replacement for the smaller telescopes was, considering that the technology of the 1990s enabled more solutions than were possible in the 60s.



I am interested in all aspects of "making telescope time available to the smaller players, both researchers and members of the educatonal system" and would be delighted to discuss them with you.

I can be reached via email at