Stargazing On A Shoestring: Astronomy's Grass-Roots Self-Help Movement

As federal money flows toward ‘glamour facilities,’ enterprising scientists are raising private funds for smaller scopes For 30 years the big white dome in the Southern California hills was the most important observatory in the world, the home of what one astronomer calls “the grandfather of all modern reflecting telescopes.” But in 1984 light pollution from nearby Los Angeles caught up with Mt. Wilson Observatory and its famous 100-inch Hooker telescope, causing its

Jun 27, 1988
Bill Lawren

As federal money flows toward ‘glamour facilities,’ enterprising scientists are raising private funds for smaller scopes

For 30 years the big white dome in the Southern California hills was the most important observatory in the world, the home of what one astronomer calls “the grandfather of all modern reflecting telescopes.” But in 1984 light pollution from nearby Los Angeles caught up with Mt. Wilson Observatory and its famous 100-inch Hooker telescope, causing its owners, the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., to announce its imminent closing.

Yet four years later Mt. Wilson has been given new life, thanks in large part to the efforts of a maverick organization called the Mt. Wilson Institute—an ex officio alliance of astronomers, businessmen, and public servants. In an era of incessant clamor for federal money, this group receives nary a dime from astronomy’s traditional funding sources in academia and Big Government.

The Mt. Wilson Institute and its strikingly eclectic approach to fund-raising is representative of what some scientists see as a growing trend: the evolution of a grass roots community of astronomers whose emphasis is on self-reliance. These groups—there are at least two others in addition to the Mt. Wilson Institute—are confident that they can fund and operate important observatories, sustaining an ongoing research effort while untethering themselves from the umbilicus of federal funding.

‘A Lost Art’

"The people who opened the early observatories understood how to appeal to the public for money,” says Arthur Vaughan, chairman of the Mt. Wilson Institute. “That’s become a lost art, but we now see people trying to restore it.”

In fact, the revived self-reliance movement in astronomy can be seen as a classic case of challenge and response. The challenge has been twofold. The first comes from the tendency of the National Science Foundation to steer its diminishing dollars away from long-term basic research and toward efforts that promise short-term practical payoffs. (The 1988 NSF budget for astronomy is $86 million, only $1 million more than 1987 and actually somewhat less when adjusted for inflation.) At the same time, both government and some astronomers tend to follow the principle that, where telescopes are concerned, bigger is better.

The confluence of these two trends, say many disgruntled astronomers, has created an immense bottleneck. Researchers must wait in line, sometimes for years, to use the very large telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. And even whan they are granted access to the coveted instruments, their time lasts typically for no more than a few—days, sometimes with years in between.

At these “glamour” facilities, says University of Minnesota astronomer Robert Gherz, “everybody wants to devote time to projects that are short term and will yield results, so that nobody can be accused of using scope time badly.” Instead of trying to understand the temperature changes in a nova over a period of years, for example, an astronomer typically attempts to quickly collect useful data on something like light absorption by interstellar dust.

Yet even short-term projects are overloading available telescopes. “By all accounts, American astron omers want about three times as much scope time as they can actually be given,” says Gherz.

This crunch in scope time is due, at least in part, to what one astronomer calls “aperture fever”—the assumption that “if you can do it on a small scope, it’s not worth doing.” But while it is true that larger telescopes can pick up light from smaller and more distant objects, allowing astronomers to explore the universe’s most distant frontiers, some experts contend that a great deal of valuable, if not “glamorous,” science can be done on small-to-medium-sized scopes.

The recent advent of ultra-efficient electronic light detectors has meant that smaller scopes can now “reach out to distant galaxies and study a huge volume of the universe,” says Bruce Weaver, president of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA). Weaver has used MIRA’s 36-inch scope to find a newly forming star in the constellation Taurus that is one of the brightest young stellar objects in the sky.

Such discoveries, along with the scarcity of available time on big scopes, has led some independent-minded astronomers to refocus at- tention on the many small-to-moderate-sized telescopes—Mt. Wilson’s Hooker scope and the 36-inch scope at California’s Mt. Lick observatory are two examples—that during the past few decades have either been put in mothballs or relegated to the backwaters of astronomical research.

These trends were beginning to appear to a few scientists as long ago as 1972—and they pushed a group of disaffected astronomy graduate students from several midwestern universities into making astronomy history. Frustrated by meager job prospects in academia, the group, including Weaver and a half dozen other young astronomers, banded together in northern California. Their goal was ambitious to the point of incredibility to build, equip, and operate their own independent observatory in Monterey without financial support from the federal government.

For the next decade, the young astronomers supported themselves by working “daylighting” jobs in nearby industry, scraping up enough money in the form of private donations and dues from members of an international support group, the Friends of MIRA, to build a three-story observatory on top of a ridge in the Los Padre National Forest. They then outfitted the observatory with a high-quality 36-inch telescope (a gift from Princeton University) and a roomfull of state-of-the-art electronic instrumentation.

Opened in 1984, the MIRA observatory has been the site of significant contributions to knowledge on the very early and very late stages of the evolution of stars. All of the original nine members are still active in the observatory, and Weaver himself publishes a paper approximately every six months— about the average for astronomers working at more “mainstream” university and federally supported observatories.

“At professional conferences,” he says, “people even ask us to make observations for them.” An astronomer from nearby NASA-Ames, for example, recently asked the MIRA group to visually observe some previously uncatalogued red giant stars that had been spotted by infrared scopes.

While some mainstream astronomers afflicted with aperture fever dismiss MIRA’s scientific work as penny-ante stuff, even they admit that private funding can be a good idea. “A good many people in the astronomical community see us as an alternative to more traditional government funding,” says MIRA administrator Hazel Ross.

MIRA’s success has set the stage for today’s burgeoning self-help movement in astronomy. One group that is venturing off the beaten path is the Alliance for the Construction of Telescopes (ACT), a consortium of over 100 astronomers from as many as a dozen universities. Like MIRA, ACT’s goal is to build its own observatory and equip it with two or more medium-sized telescopes.

But where MIRA aggressively and creatively procured funds from outside normal channels, ACT started by looking for financing only from within the universities where its members work. That search netted the tens of thousands of dollars necessary to complete a site survey earlier this year, but it has failed to generate the $10 million needed to actually build an observatory. According to Gherz, one member of the consortium, universities have “expressed interest” but will not actually pledge money until ACT can find matching funds here. At this writing, ACT is gearing up a funding appeal to patrons and private foundations. The reluctance of academic institutions to fund the new breed of medium-sized observatories forced the rescuers of Mt. Wilson down a more creative road. The Mt. Wilson Institute had its start in a 1984 phone call to Jet Propulsion Laboratory astrophysicist Arthur Vaughan from Pasadena attorney and amateur astronomer Robert Ferguson, who had read news of Mt. Wilson’s imminent closing in local papers. The two agreed that the Mt. Wilson Observatory could and should be saved, but, says Vaughan, “our assumption was that no existing organization would come forward [to effect rescue], and that we would have to create our own.” Local universities, for example, were aware of the observatory’s endangered status, yet none of them made a move to help save it. “If we had waited for the universities,” says Vaughan, “we’d be nowhere.”

Instead of waiting, the Mt. Wilson group—which had some of its initial meetings on a Pasadena golf course—reached out early and often into the surrounding community, emphasizing that a great deal of highly respectable astronomy (in particular, the long-term study of sunspots) could still be done with Mt. Wilson’s instrumentation.

The effort had the support of key groups in the community. The U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land on which Mt. Wilson sits, did not want a ghost observatory on its hands, while both the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department and the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History were interested in keeping the observatory going as an educational and recreational facility.

With the enthusiastic support of these public entities, Vaughan and Peterson went on to populate the fledgling institute’s board of directors with members from both the business community and the public sector. In fact, of the board’s seven members, only three are scientists. Three others—attorney Ferguson, Ralph Krider of the Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, and Craig Black of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History—reflect the institute’s strong ties with the public sector.

“If our membership were limited to scientists,” says Vaughan, “I think the prospects for finding funding to keep Mt. Wilson open would be very dim. Scientists get most of their money from NSF and NASA grants, and those grants would just provide money for research. They wouldn’t pay the operating expenses of the observatory itself.”

The institute is now actively negotiating with a number of private foundations, and Vaughan is confident that these discussions will soon generate the $10 million necessary to operate the observatory for at least three more years. In the meantime, the Carnegie Institution has been both patient enough to keep the observatory running and positive enough to sign a resolution formally turning Mt. Wilson over to the institute pending appropriate funding. Vaughan expects to have that funding in hand sometime this summer.

If it does succeed, the Mt. Wilson Institute might very well serve as a model for groups like ACT, and this in turn might generate other independent groups of astronomers running their own small-to-medium-sized observatories. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this trend grows,” says Vaughan. “I think there will have to be more organizations like ours, [constituting] a trend toward relearning how to survive without 100% dependence on government funds.”

Bill Lawren is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass.