Saturday, April 4

Submission: Shutting down Lick Observatory is shortsighted

The UC's Lick Observatory, located near San Jose, logs over 1,000 nights of telescope time for UC researchers, from faculty to undergraduates. The observatory is in danger of closing by 2018. (Courtesy of Laurie Hatch)

The original photo caption accompanying this article contained an error and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information.

In its April 15 article “UC’s Lick Observatory might soon shut down operations,” the Daily Bruin reported on the plan by the UC Office of the President to terminate systemwide funding for the Lick Observatory after 2018. If alternative funding is not found, the observatory will close, and the negative impacts on UC’s astronomy research and education programs will be dramatic. Those impacts will fall disproportionately on younger astronomers: postdoctoral scholars, graduate students and undergraduates.

Lick Observatory is a multi-campus research unit that serves a large community of astronomers, researchers and students distributed across eight UC campuses and two UC-managed labs. Lick is wholly owned and operated by the UC, and UC observers receive nearly 100 percent of the observing time on Lick’s five research telescopes. These telescopes, equipped with state-of-the-art instruments, provide more than 1,000 nights of research-quality telescope time each year. In addition to faculty and researchers, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars can apply for time on these telescopes; this enables them to conceive and conduct their own research projects, helping them to become independent research scientists.

Both current and former UC astronomy graduate students have written letters stressing how the opportunity to obtain telescope time at Lick Observatory was critical to their decision to pursue graduate studies at the UC. Former UC astronomy graduates, who are now astronomers at major universities and observatories in the United States and abroad, emphasize how the opportunity to conduct their own research projects at Lick Observatory was a key factor in developing the skills needed for a successful career in astronomy.

While the UC is a partner in and receives a 38 percent share of the science observing time on Keck Observatory’s two 10-meter telescopes (or about 240 nights of telescope time per year), only faculty and senior researchers are permitted to apply for telescope time there; graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are not. The same will be true for the Thirty Meter Telescope partnership in which the UC will receive only a 12.3 percent share (or about 40 nights per year) of the available telescope time. Furthermore the TMT is not scheduled to begin operations until at least 2022.

Along with its vital educational role in supporting the UC’s astronomy students, UC astronomers and researchers continue to perform cutting-edge research at Lick Observatory. Lick telescopes are being used for major research projects involving time-domain astronomy that require huge numbers of nights each year but which require only moderate-sized telescopes. The necessary blocks of time are not available at Keck (which is heavily oversubscribed) nor will they be available at the Thirty Meter Telescope, and large telescopes are not needed for such projects. Several of these projects involve participation by a large pool of undergraduates who are mentored by the astronomers leading the project.

Lick is also used for instrument development and as a test bed for new technologies. For example, laser guide star adaptive optics was largely developed at the Shane 3-meter Telescope at Lick and became the basis for the adaptive optics system at Keck. Both graduate students and undergraduates are involved in the stunning new Shane adaptive optics system now being commissioned at Lick.

Another of Lick’s functions is acting as the primary base for UC astronomy education and public outreach efforts. About 35,000 visitors come to Lick each year to learn about astronomy, and its popular summer visitor programs enable the public to view the cosmos through two of the Lick telescopes.

If Lick closes down in 2018 due to lack of funds, the UC astronomy community will lose over a 1,000 nights of research-quality telescope time each year, thus terminating Lick’s ongoing research programs and increasing competition for already-scarce observing time at Keck. It will also deny future UC astronomy graduate and undergraduate students the research opportunities current students now have. As a result, both UC’s astronomy education and research programs will be seriously impacted, and UC will likely face increased difficulty in attracting the top astronomy students, postdoctoral scholars and junior faculty to its astronomy programs.

The funds needed to operate Lick Observatory each year amount to only 7 percent of UC’s systemwide ground-based astronomy budget. In its report, UC’s Astronomy Task Force stated that “the return per dollar spent on Lick Observatory is widely considered to be an extraordinarily good value.” And nine members of California’s Congressional Delegation recently wrote a letter to UC President Napolitano regarding Lick Observatory, stating that “it would be short-sighted to pinch pennies by shutting down this exemplary facility.”

If you agree, please see for information on how you can help encourage UC’s leadership to secure the funding needed to keep Lick Observatory operating on behalf of UC’s astronomy research and education programs.

Alexei V. Filippenko

Professor of Astronomy, UC Berkeley

Robert Kibrick

Research Astronomer (retired), University of California Observatories

Aaron J. Barth

Professor of Physics and Astronomy, UC Irvine

Vardha N. Bennert

Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

Gabriela Canalizo

Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, UC Riverside

Alison Coil

Associate Professor of Physics, UC San Diego

Gaspard Duchêne

Assistant Research Astronomer, UC Berkeley

Elinor Gates

Support Scientist, Lick Observatory

Garth Illingworth

Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz

Evan Kirby

Center for Galaxy Evolution Fellow, UC Irvine

David Koo

Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz

Matthew A. Malkan

Professor of Physics and Astronomy, UC Los Angeles

Carl Melis

Assistant Research Scientist, UC San Diego

Richard Puetter

Research Physicist, UC San Diego

R. Michael Rich

Research Astronomer, UC Los Angeles

Steven Vogt

Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, UC Santa Cruz

Correction: The caption incorrectly identified the Lick Observatory as a UCLA body.

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  • Alex Filippenko

    Owing to the Easter holiday weekend, four cosigners were unable to
    complete their review and approval of the above submission until after
    it was published. All four have requested that they be listed as
    cosigners of this submission:

    Greg Aldering
    Staff Scientist, Physics Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

    S. Mark Ammons
    Astronomer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

    Michael Gregg
    Associate Research Astrophysicist, UC Davis

    Tucker Jones
    Postdoctoral Fellow, UC Santa Barbara

    With the addition of these four, all 8 campuses of UC which have
    astronomy/astrophysics programs, along with both UC-managed labs,
    now have representatives that have cosigned this submission.

    It should also be noted that prior to becoming an Assistant Professor
    of Physics and Astronomy at California Polytechnic State University
    San Luis Obispo, cosigner Dr. Vardha N. Bennert was a postdoctoral
    researcher, first at UC Riverside and then at UC Santa Barbara.

    Alex Filippenko
    Professor of Astronomy
    Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences
    UC Berkeley