Chasing the Mysteries of Proxima B. Bob Zimmerman,



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Twitter: @batchelorshow

Chasing the Mysteries of Proxima B. Bob Zimmerman,

Private money to VLT to search for Earthlike planets at Alpha Centauri

The privately funded Breakthrough Initiatives project has committed funds to upgrade the Very Large Telescope in Chile in exchange for telescope time to look for Earthlike planets in orbit around Alpha Centauri.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking are hoping to find Earth-like planets in our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri. Together they will upgrade the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to look for potentially habitable worlds as part of the ‘Breakthrough’ initiatives.

These planets could be the targets for a launch of tiny space probes to track down aliens within our lifetimes, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said.

This is exactly how astronomy used to function. Rather than get money from the government in exchange for doing the research it wanted done, astronomers obtained funds from wealthy individuals or businesses to build and upgrade their telescopes in exchange for doing the research that interested these funding sources. The difference? The work was privately funded voluntarily, rather than coerced from the public through taxes.

The status of telescopes the NSF is getting rid of

Back in 2012 the National Science Foundation (NSF) proposed that it cease funding a slew of older, smaller telescopes in order to use that money to fund the construction and operation of newer more advanced facilities. This article, focused on the fate of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, provides a nice table that shows the status of these telescopes.

The options were either to find new funding, be mothballed, or even demolished. It appears that most of the telescopes in question have found new funding and will remain in use in some manner. The one telescope that has apparently failed to obtain any additional funding from others is the McMath–Pierce Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona, which when built in 1962 was the world’s largest solar telescope, an honor for which it is still tied.

In 2015 I had written an article for Sky & Telescope about how these budget cuts were effecting the telescopes on Kitt Peak. At that time the people in charge of McMath-Pierce were hunting for new support but were coming up short. Almost two years later it appears that their hunt has been a failure, and the telescope will likely be shut down, and possibly demolished.

It will be a sad thing if McMath-Pierce is lost, but I am not arguing to save it. If its observational capabilities were truly valuable and needed by the scientific community than someone would have come forward to finance it. That no one has suggests that the money really can be spent more usefully in other ways.

10 days ago
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