Astronomers everywhere are breathing easier this week. Is this because we all filed our taxes on time? Perhaps, but from an astronomer's perspective there is another goal that also tugs on our time in mid-April, the Hubble Space Telescope proposal deadline.
Every year there is an international competition for astronomers to take a turn to look through the most important telescope in the world, the Hubble Space Telescope (Hubble). Hubble is situated in space and orbits the Earth so the verb ‘look through’ is clearly figurative.
Astronomers instead hope to have the chance to write software to steer the telescope and take their data, data that will advance our understanding of outer space on topics ranging from the discovery of planets outside our solar system to the search for the first galaxies which would later evolve into objects like our own Milky Way.
The privilege to use Hubble is granted to a choice few astronomers each year based on a peer-reviewed process. Each qualified scientist writes an 8-11 page proposal which is then reviewed by a committee of 10 astronomers who are experts in that particular field of research.
NASA invites these experts from around the world to assemble in person in Baltimore each May to make their recommendations to the Director.
The chances of winning are slim. For every 10 proposals submitted, only one proposal is accepted, and there are no consolation prizes. As a colleague puts it, 9 out of every 10 proposals receive an "F" and only one receives an "A."
When a proposal is awarded the time, what follows is a second, more technical phase of work to write the detailed computer programs to tell Hubble how to go about carrying out the specified experiment. In this second phase there is also some financial assistance awarded to U. S. proposers to offset the costs for students and other staff to process and analyze the data.
I submitted a record (for me) two proposals as Principal Investigator (PI) this year, and now get to play the waiting game until July when the results will be announced. This is the 23rd year of operation of this telescope which has become the most successful and influential one in history.
Looking to the future, we do not know how much longer Hubble will continue to work for us, and Hubble cannot be repaired again if it fails. Fortunately, in late 2018 the much awaited successor for Hubble is coming, the James Webb Space Telescope (the giant pyramid of all telescopes)!