On the UC Regents' agenda this week was a progress report on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The project, to be built in Hawaii, will be a partnership between UC and Caltech, as well as Canada, China, India and Japan. But as the University of California is committing to the TMT, it's divesting from a much smaller operation closer to home. Reporter: Rachael Myrow
This week University of California President Janet Napolitano announced her intention to cut the budget of the UC Office of the President, to “lead by example.” Of course, UC’s budget is massive: $24 billion this academic year (2013-2014). So, even as some budget lines die or shrink, others grow or spring to life.
Among the many items on the UC regents’ agenda this week was a progress report on the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Andrea Ghez, a UCLA physics and astronomy professor, is extremely excited about the scientific possibilities. She told the regents, “We’ll be able to study the region around a black hole, allowing us to understand the fundamentals of how black holes warp space/time, which presents us with a great opportunity to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity.”
This project, to be built in Hawaii, will be a partnership between UC and Caltech, as well as Canada, China, India and Japan. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has put in $250 million. UC and Caltech are raising $50 million each. But even as UC is committing to the TMT in Hawaii, it’s divesting from a much smaller operation closer to home.
On top of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, the Lick Observatory is home to the oldest professional telescope in California. In 1888 it was the most powerful telescope in the world, built from pieces brought up the mountain by mule train. Now there are nine telescopes, but the “Great Lick Telescope” is the one that draws the big crowds. Garth Illingworth is an astronomy professor at UC Santa Cruz and an astronomer at the UC Observatories, which operates Lick. Staring up at the Victorian wonder, Illingworth says, “Astronomers worked very differently in those days. We’re so used to looking at digital images from cameras. But in those days, a lot of the work was done actually looking through an eyepiece.”
The Great Lick Refractor inside the main observatory building.
Astronomers at all 10 UC campuses have access to the telescopes here. The money for this ancient refractor came from a Gold Rush-era real estate baron in San Francisco. James Lick lies buried underneath the telescope, as part of the deal for his investment in 1874. In the years that followed, much of the planet Mars was mapped from this building, among other things. But the Lick Observatory is not just a museum.
Over the years, technology improved, refractors gave way to mirrors, and other telescopes popped up on this mountaintop. Standing next to one from the 1950s called the Three Meter, Illingworth says a good mirror can stay scientifically relevant for decades, as long as the instruments attached to it are cutting edge.
“The mirrors collect light in the same way, but the way we analyze that light is just dramatically different,” he says.
As an example, he notes that the Three Meter mirror is fairly similar in size to the Hubble, but unlike the Hubble, the Three Meter has to contend with the Earth’s atmosphere. Adaptive optics technology now in development would shine a laser up at the sky, make an artificial star, and then correct the aberrations to sharpen the image. “So we can make this telescope generate images as sharp as Hubble,” Illingworth says.
It used to be an astronomer had to put on long underwear and camp out on or near a telescope to research the heavens. Nowadays, researchers from all over the UC system dial into telescopes digitally.
On a really clear day, you can see San Francisco to the West and Half Dome in Yosemite to the East. In recent years, a couple of review committees recommended that UC’s Office of the President stop spending $1.8 million a year to operate Lick in favor of other more modern facilities in Hawaii, like the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Naturally, this upsets Professor Illingworth. “It is unfortunate that even professional astronomers fail to recognize at times that one can do cutting-edge science on modest telescopes at very reasonable cost when they are properly equipped.” He also notes, “There are a lot of younger people who come and use this, and this is how they learn about astronomy. They get hands-on experience. So the results here attract a lot of scientists. And of course, there are 35,000 visitors a year.”
The Three-Meter Shane Reflector, commissioned in 1959.
Compared with the $50 million UC will have to raise to build the TMT, $1.8 million may not seem like that much. But, as Illingworth points out, that operations budget funds the operation of assets like the Automated Planet Finder, the newest telescope at Lick. Completed just last year, the Planet Finder cost $12 million. Steve Vogt is a professor of astronomy and astrophsyics at UC Santa Cruz and an astronomer at the UC Observatories. Illingworth calls Vogt “Mr. Exoplanets,” because of his work finding them.
Compared with some of the older telescopes at Lick, the dome of the Planet Finder looks diminutive, but there’s no wasted space inside. The equipment is newer, and of course astronomers don’t need to camp out overnight the way they used to. If anything, it’s better they don’t, given the human body heat they emit. Air conditioning keeps the temperature inside where it would be at midnight. Vogt is quite pleased after 10 years of working designing this telescope and its housing. It has one purpose: to find planets.
What would happen without an operating budget? A “tragedy,” Vogt says. “It needs power. It needs people around that can look after it, that can fix it when it breaks.”
It might not come to that. There is a group trying to raise money, and/or change people’s minds.
Steve Montiel, a spokesman for the UC Office of the President, wrote in an e-mail the UCOP expects Lick to find alternative funding sources as the office pulls out gradually, over five years or so: “Lick is used primarily by a small number of UC campuses that may be interested in funding it for their educational purposes. There is also a substantial potential for private funding as has been the case for Mount Wilson and Palomar observatories, both of which were previously operated entirely by one organization (Mount Wilson by the Carnegie Institution and Palomar by Caltech) and now obtain all or most of their operating funds from other sources.”
Lick is hardly the only UC facility facing a painful and possibly existential cut, but Illingworth and his colleagues have something going for them. Lick is located within sight of Silicon Valley, a region full of wealthy people ... who love science.