Is eyepiece time on a world-class telescope worth more than a Super Bowl ticket?

Posted by Eric Betz
on Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Scientists are now selling high-priced eyepiece time on the instrument Edwin Hubble used to study the expanding universe. // courtesy Ken Spencer/Wikimedia Commons
Before your eyeball even approaches the glass, you notice a green glow pushing out from the eyepiece and spilling across the pitch black room. And as you peer through the telescope, the Orion Nebula (M42) comes into glorious focus. This diffuse nebula has long proven itself a hit during public viewing nights on instruments across the country.

But this is not your average instrument. This is the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope, recently built at a dark-sky site in Arizona and equipped with an eyepiece for entertaining the occasional guest. The privileged group of viewers includes celebrities and a number of generous donors to Lowell Observatory.

The nonprofit's massive telescope takes the cake when it comes to eyepiece viewing, but they aren't selling time yet, though director Jeff Hall says he's not against the idea. "I will take any money you can throw at me," he says.

A growing number of observatories are now selling this kind of experience. California's Mount Wilson Observatory recently announced it will be selling half-nights of eyepiece observing on its 100-inch Hooker Telescope starting at $2,700. And while that's several hundred dollars more than the cheapest Super Bowl XLIX tickets on StubHub right now, Mount Wilson will at least let you bring some friends along.

Director Hal McAlister says the observatory is charging "an arm and a leg" because they need the money to operate. The approach was quickly vindicated, however, as the observing nights initially offered last month quickly sold out.

As aging observatories struggle to fund their still productive science programs, an increasing number are now putting eyepieces on the backs of behemoth telescopes once reserved for cutting-edge science instruments of their day.

At the American Astronomy Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle on Monday, there was a session to discuss plans for the absurdly large Thirty Meter Telescope being built by an international consortium on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. But that town hall was just down from the room where four directors at observatories more than a century old were having a much different discussion: How do you save historic observatories?

Mount Wilson has been run by a nonprofit organization since the Carnegie Institute of Washington decided to put its money into larger telescopes in places like Chile 28 years ago. And Mount Wilson has been successful at maintaining its modern instruments for research rather than simply becoming a museum.

McAlister says most of the observatory's overall funding comes from ticket sales.

But last year, the University of California, Los Angeles, also lost funding to run the 150-foot solar tower and had to stop its research projects. Now, the instrument is only fired up once a day to collect the solar sketch done here since 1919.

Lick Observatory faces a similar predicament. Founded more than 125 years ago outside the San Francisco Bay Area, it was the world's first permanent mountaintop observatory. Today, it's used by more than 100 University of California faculty and students for long-term research projects on exoplanets and supernovae, as well as testing next-generation instruments for use on much larger telescopes. But the University of California Office of the President decided to divest in 2013 and then reversed its decision in fall 2014 under public pressure. Its funding situation remains uncertain.

Sandra Faber recently stepped down from her position as the observatory's director. At AAS on Monday, she said that Lick too wants to follow its peers and begin selling telescope eyepiece time for its massive telescopes to help preserve the scientific research still being carried out.

And Faber says the observatory is looking at even more lucrative sources of revenue. Lick is considering opening up its premises for exclusive conferences for Bay Area technology executives. She looked at the cost of building a tram to the top of the mountain to try to increase from the observatory's current lackluster 30,000 visitors, but found it would take about $30 million. Instead, she says they could probably use their helipad.

Reconnecting their research with the public is crucial to the mission going forward, Faber says. And not just from a ticket sales standpoint.

"In Palo Alto, if you point to the mountain and ask who runs [Lick], people say Stanford," she says. "We've completely lost our public relations."

Mount Wilson sees a very similar problem, but hopes to capitalize on an asset most observatory wouldn't normally like to claim: a nearby metropolis of 18 million people.

"Our challenge is to get Southern California to rediscover this wonderful place literally in their backyard," McAlister says.

How much would you pay for a night of live viewing on a world-class telescope?

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