The future of astronomy seems clear to me right now. It goes through ESO.
That’s not particularly bad, especially if you’re an ESO member, but if you’re not, things may be a little less good. With the addition of Brazil, ESO has begun its expansion beyond Europe and it’s no secret that several other non-European countries are currently considering joining ESO. ESO stands to gain even more attention if one of the competing Giant Segmented Mirror Telescopes (GSMT: TMT/GMT) do not take off or appear to get the critical national support they need to attract and hold new funding partners. The world’s astronomers may have no choice – join ESO or stay out of the large telescope game.
Now, I have nothing against doing science with “small” (< 8m) telescopes. There is a lot of attractive and compelling science to be done there. The “smaller” telescopes offer more opportunities to innovate by using new observing techniques and equipment, having access to larger amounts of telescope time, and affording the opportunities for high-risk, high-gain projects that couldn’t be assigned time at the larger telescopes. But if you want a balanced national program, you are going to want access to the world’s largest telescopes, as well.
In the thirty meter telescope era, funding and general support for the 8-10m telescopes will decrease. No problem for ESO – it has a full house of telescope of different apertures and functions, working in conjunction to support one another and produce a well-balanced suite of capabilities for its user community. It is more of a problem, however, if you’re a single (or even dual) 8m telescope owner like Gemini, Subaru, or Keck, for example. Mauna Kea astronomy is some of the best in the world, and yet, without a GSMT for its community, and in the face of shrinking budgets as its telescope owners either divest themselves from the Mauna Kea telescopes to invest in a GSMT or ESO or simply to reduce their commitment to astronomy, Mauna Kea telescopes will decrease in relevance. ESO is great, but for the good of astronomy, we can’t let Mauna Kea, we can’t let non-ESO astronomy, fade away.
One possible solution has been discussed for ages, but never fully endorsed or implemented. It is starting, however to reappear in several different forms for different, but related reasons. We must somehow unite the telescopes on Mauna Kea into something greater than the sum of the individual observatories. There is a VLT right now on Mauna Kea, but we just don’t operate it as such. Actually, when you consider the unique strengths of even just the 8-10m telescope on Mauna Kea, we have a potential uber-VLT in our midst. Add community access to Gemini South and you have a facility which could conceivably span both northern and southern hemispheres – a very worthy competitor to the VLT.
Establishing some sort of Mauna Kea Federation has several advantages: 1) it would allow each observatory to concentrate on what it does best, reducing the costs incurred in trying to provide each independent community access to the entire spectrum of wavelength and resolution coverage on the sky, 2) it would allow each facility to offer a capability in its strong suit that is currently beyond anything it can currently afford to do, 3) it would form a natural community to not only fund, but properly feed and support, a non-ESO GSMT, and 4) through shared resources, it would provide each community with better access to tools and facilities than any community currently has.
In the inevitable funding cuts that will certainly come to the current Mauna Kea telescopes, the disparate Mauna Kea communities must join together if they are going to continue to have access to the level of infrastructure they are used to. It is unlikely that any existing Mauna Kea observatory will be able to offer the same range of wavelength and resolution in cutting edge instrumentation with the high levels of support that it currently does. Downgrade your capabilities or unite. There will be no other choice.
So, given all this, how do we unite the current Mauna Kea telescopes? I don’t at all claim to know the detailed answer to that one, but I think the path includes the word federation. We must find a way to allow each observatory to retain its current identity and functional systems while allowing each observatory to develop capabilities that both play to its own strong suit and are attractive not only to its own community of users, but to the communities from the other telescopes as well. I don’t think this task is all that hard (the large Mauna Kea telescopes have some natural complements to each other already), but it will take a change in mindset to implement. In the meantime, I think each facility ought to be increasing its strengths and planning for a future where these strengths are traded for high-level capabilities at the other facilities. Playing to our strengths is a good strategy even in the absence of a Mauna Kea Federation. As each facility further develops its strengths, though, it will find that not only is its community enjoying the new benefits, but other communities will start looking for ways to get access themselves. By making our facilities the best at what we can each do best, we will start driving the demand for some sort of federation at both ends: our own communities will start wanting access to capabilities in short supply at our facilities and other communities will start wanting our unique capabilities to complement theirs as well. If we do this right, need and desire from both sides will help us find a way form our more perfect union.
Realtime demand is a more effective motivator for change than is forward thinking and long term planning, however accurate and omniscient it may be.
Scot has nothing against ESO, and actually thinks they have a great facility and approach to fulfilling their communities’ needs, but for the good of astronomy, he thinks a little friendly competition and rivalry is a good thing. He’s pretty sure the ESO community would say the same thing, if asked.