Budget cuts threaten astronomical research
Posted on Aug 30, 2012 in Opinion
A new report from the Division of Astronomical Sciences of the National Science Foundation found that United States’ funding for ground-based astronomy could drop to as low as 50 percent of the projected budgets. Every decade, the astronomical community puts forward a review that identifies the most important astronomy and astrophysics research projects for the next decade and recommends new goals.
Due to budget cuts since the last review in 2010, the actual funding for astronomy has been much lower than that projected by the review. The 2012 budget was $45 million less than the review’s predictions, and the deficit is projected to grow to between $75 million and $100 million by 2014.
To cope with the reduced funding, the Division of Astronomical Sciences is recommending the closure of some iconic observatories including the Green Banks Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array and four telescopes on Kitts Peak in Arizona.
The Green Banks Telescope is the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. It has returned many discoveries, including new millisecond pulsars and interstellar magnetic fields. The Very Long Baseline Array is a group of 10 radio telescopes scattered across the country. When operated simultaneously using interferometry to combine their observations, they become a single 8,600-mile diameter telescope with unparalleled resolution.
Funding cuts are not just the troubles of the United States. The English astronomy budget was also cut, and the United Kingdom’s Science and Technology Facilities Council will be closing down two of the oldest telescopes atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope will close in September 2013, followed by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope a year later. All that would be needed to keep UKIRT operational is about $150,000 a year.
Funding for astronomy, though it may seem obscure and of little application to human life, is crucial for the survival of our species. A commonly overlooked fact of life is that the Earth is not a fortress, able to withstand cataclysms after cataclysm. It is rather a fragile greenhouse in the inhospitable darkness of space. Many forces threaten to destroy our home, ranging from asteroids on collision courses of the earth to the deadly gamma ray bursts from a nearby supernova.
It may seem that asteroids and gamma ray bursts are rare and will never strike Earth, but that view is only due to humanity’s extremely short existence. Approximately 65 million years ago an asteroid is said to have struck Earth, killing off approximately 75 percent of all species on Earth, including the dinosaurs. During the Great Dying 252 million years ago, a combination of asteroids and terrestrial factors caused over 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of all terrestrial species to become extinct. During the Ordovician extinction 450 million years ago, a gamma-ray burst killed over 60 percent of all marine life.
Astronomy and astrophysics seek to understand the greater world around us. By understanding the inner workings of the universe, we will be better able to identify possible threats to our existence. If we can identify threats early, humanity will be able to prepare for and possibly avert certain extinction. However inapplicable astronomy funding seems to everyday life, it will one day ensure that everyday life will continue to exist.