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Kitt Peak Telescope to Close

TUCSON, ARIZONA--Astronomers are upset over a decision to mothball a pioneering millimeter-wavelength telescope on Kitt Peak in southern Arizona. A planned replacement scope won't be ready for years, and astronomers fear the 1 July closure--announced last week by National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) officials--will doom many research projects and drive young researchers out of the field.

The scope is famous for its early exploration of interstellar matter, star formation, and the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. But the 33-year-old facility is by no means obsolete: More than 150 researchers use the dish each year. It is the only millimeter-wavelength telescope in the United States run full-time as a national facility: Any astronomer can apply for time on the scope.

Astronomers will have access to a new and improved millimeter-wavelength facility after NRAO helps build a proposed array of 64 dish antennas in the Chilean desert. But the project, called the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), hasn't received any construction funds and won't come online for several years. Faced with inflation eating into its flat budget, NRAO decided to cut Kitt Peak now, knowing that another facility will be available eventually.

Astrochemist Lucy Ziurys of the University of Arizona in Tucson warns that closing the telescope before researchers can switch to ALMA will doom many research projects. She says that no other facility offers the same combination of highly sensitive and stable receivers to detect faint signals, extremely efficient data collection, and wide frequency coverage in the millimeter range. "I myself won't be able to finish five or six projects," she says.

Others worry that the closure could drive young researchers out of the field. These critics doubt that ALMA will begin even interim operations by 2005. In the meantime, "young researchers are going to get tired of waiting for research time and go off and get grants to do something else," warns Tom Bania, an astronomer at Boston University.