We in Arizona are lucky enough to have clear skies about 300 days per year. We are also lucky enough to have many telescopes situated on the mountaintops surrounding the city of Tucson and Flagstaff.
Some of the more interesting of the many Arizona observatories include the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mt. Graham, which is one of the biggest telescopes in the world. The LBT has contributed to many areas in astronomy, from detecting planets outside our solar system (exosolar planets), to finding the most distant galaxies. On the same mountaintop is the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), which is one of the Vatican Observatory facilities.
These are just two examples of the many research telescopes in the Tucson vicinity. Even so, there are fewer telescopes than there are astronomers will to use them, so how is it decided who gets to use these premier research facilities?
It would be nice if one could just drive up to the mountaintop, show some identification and then be able to guide the telescope. But, as Professor Jill Knapp of Princeton University explains, there are many more ideas than there is funding (or time).
The story actually starts up to one year in advance, when a ‘call’ is put out by each observatory for proposals. In response, the astronomer is requested to write an 8—page proposal describing each program she/he has in mind to carry out.
The proposal will contain a description of the science idea, the reasons why a particular instrument on a particular telescope is needed, the details of the instrumental setup, and a description of how the data will be used to advance our knowledge in a certain research area. Once submitted, the proposals are then reviewed by a panel of experts in the field, sometimes up to ten or more people. The proposals are rank-ordered by quality and scientific potential, and the best ones are awarded the time.
This past week I submitted 12 different proposals, a personal record! It is an exciting task, as one has the chance to brainstorm and try out new ideas. It is also requires a great deal of energy, especially given that twelve proposals equates to 12 x 8 = 96 pages of typewritten work! Finally, the activity requires patience, as some observatories report only about a 1:10 chance of success. We will see in the next few months what are the results.
Keep looking up!