SAN JOSE -- The future of astronomical research at the iconic Lick Observatory is in peril, as the University of California threatens to cut funding and perhaps even convert most of its once-cutting-edge Mount Hamilton telescopes into museum relics.
Now, alongside the search for new celestial frontiers, scientists must hunt for a new source of outside funding to keep the 125-year-old observatory from going dark.
"It's heartbreaking. We're collapsing like a house of cards," said Steve Vogt, who leads a team of planet-hunting astronomers at UC-Santa Cruz.
Perched on the 4,200-foot summit of Mount Hamilton east of San Jose, the UC-run observatory is home to six telescopes, which are increasingly upstaged by newer and larger telescopes in other parts of the world. When constructed in 1888, Lick was the first permanently occupied mountaintop observatory in the world; for almost a decade, its original telescope was the largest ever built.
It has made major contributions to the field of astronomy, discovering asteroids, moons of Jupiter and planets outside our solar system.
If it loses funding, Lick's sensitive new $10 million Automated Planet Finder, a decade in production, would no longer scan the skies for our galactic neighbors, bringing us closer to answering the profound question: Are we alone?
The observatory's surveys of supernovae and the future of astronomy education at UC-Santa Cruz are also under threat, because the campus relies on Lick to support its nationally-renowned academic program.
"UC wants it off the books," Vogt said. "They're shutting the door and turning out the lights."
The plan is based on the findings of two review committees -- one at UC, the second made up of independent experts -- that two other Hawaii-based sites, W.M. Keck Observatory and the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), deserve higher priority at a time of cost-cutting.
The $1.8 million currently spent annually on Lick "is a significant sum in the face of other funding pressures," according to a report by outside scientists, led by Robert C. Kennicutt of the University of Cambridge.
About $20 million of UC's $24.1 billion annual budget is used to support observatories and research in astronomy and astrophysics. UC aims to reduce funding for Lick starting in 2016, with a complete cutoff after 2018.
"Telescopes and instruments are growing ever more expensive, and many of the traditional sources of funds for supporting astronomy -- the state and federal governments -- are facing growing claims on their resources," according to the external report. "Old facilities on Mt. Hamilton ... would cost more to modernize than could be rationalized in terms of their usefulness."
Lick's telescopes lack the huge mirrors of newer telescopes, which see fainter and far more distant objects in space, said UC-Santa Cruz professor of astronomy Garth Illingworth, a member of the University of California Observatories, which manages the university's telescopes.
"But Lick is still very important," despite its limitations, said Illingworth, who opposes cutting its funding.
The observatory provides a place where about 100 faculty, students and post-docs get scientific data and is an important test site for new technologies, he said.
UC is asking UCSC to help find non-university sources of revenue -- such as Silicon Valley-based philanthropists -- to underwrite the operating costs of Lick. But this could prove difficult, because it can be tough to find grants to support the day-to-day operations of an observatory.
"It's like being asked to build your own casket," said Vogt.
In general, scientists say, donors prefer to support fancy new hardware used to explore pioneering ideas.
Already, several prominent astronomers have left Lick because of funding uncertainties. One major loss was noted instrument builder Rebecca Bernstein, recently hired by the rival Giant Magellan Telescope project.
It is possible that Lick's new Automated Planet Finder could find continued funding, said Illingworth. But research at the other telescopes is in serious jeopardy, he said.
"If funding can't be found -- if no one is willing to continue supporting it -- it will shut down," he said.
Bay Area News Group higher education reporter Katy Murphy contributed to this article. Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.
Lick Observatory was built in 1888 with the wealth of a thrifty Pennsylvania Dutchman named James Lick, who found gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada as well as the booming real estate market fueled by young California's growth.
The telescope he envisioned -- part high-visibility scientific enterprise, part monument to himself -- was to be the best in the world.
But over time, other bigger and newer telescopes, such as Hawaii's Keck Observatory, have better mirrors, so they can see more distant objects.
The following astronomical objects were discovered at Lick Observatory:
Source: Lick Observatory Collections Project