A Canadian Modest Aperture Telescope

Melvin Blake, David Dunlap Observatory
Ovidiu Vaduvescu and Robin Fingerhut, Department of Physics and Astronomy, York University

The Optical-Infrared Astronomy Committee (OIRAC) recently conducted a series of surveys to determine the needs of the optical infrared community for future facilities. The surprising outcome of the surveys was a large number of responses expressing a desire to see more modest aperture telescopes become available for use by Canadian astronomers. It is encouraging to find that the Canadian astronomical community is not singularly of the mind that progress toward exciting new science is taken to be synonymous with bigger, larger new facilities. While it is obviously necessary to invest in new large-scale facilities in order to maintain an international presence, it is economically prudent of us to not lose sight of the fact that leading-edge science can still be conducted with smaller-scale facilities. Here we outline just some of the science that would be possible with such a facility and we justify the economic viability of its construction, operation and maintenance.

Science With Modest Apertures

In the age of 8-10m telescopes and the technological achievements that have facilitated their construction, it is easy to forget that a modest aperture telescope can often not only compete with larger telescopes, but can also make it economically feasible to obtain invaluable supporting data to augment observations from larger telescopes. The NOAO Newsletter for March 1997 identifies the following strengths of smaller optical and IR facilities: Here we include some examples of the sort of science that might be pursued, which is certainly not complete and is of course subject to our own research interests and biases.

Training of Astronomy Students

Most of the large new facilities will operate almost exclusively using service observing. This is required in order to maximize the scientific return for the considerable financial commitment needed to construct large telescopes. However, the drawback is that the hands-on experience of the next generation of young astronomers may be limited to university facilities. For the majority of universities in Canada, these facilities often lack the resources for proper maintenance and are located at poor sites, making it difficult for students to obtain high-quality results and can result in an uninspiring academic experience. A high quality national telescope of modest aperture could help address the lack of practical observing opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students. A 1-2m class telescope would provide students with the experience of having to make real-time decisions related to optimizing their scientific return during their observing run.

One possible educational program for a modest aperture telescope would be an internship program for graduate students and postdocs in which the intern would reside at the facility and be responsible for supervising and conducting service observing for other astronomers.  Such a program would not only train students for service observing, but would also expose them to the observational requirements of research outside their own specialty. In addition, the intern would correspond with astronomers in the international community, enabling them to forge contacts. Student training is an important consideration when planning the future of astronomy in Canada, and a modest aperture telescope could play a major part in fulfilling this need.

Cost of a Small Facility

We have obtained the following current cost estimates for the telescope, dome and building from DFM Engineering. The exact costs for a facility depend strongly upon the aperture and instrumentation desired, but these may be taken as good estimate for the construction of a new facility. Estimates here are given in U.S. funds. For a 1.3m f/4 Cassegrain telescope with a 1.7 degree field, the approximate costs are $1.2 million for the telescope, $85 000 for the dome and $60 000 for a minimal building. Mirror handling equipment (without aluminising chamber) is included in these costs. Detectors make up the majority of the costs; a mosaic camera would cost about $3 million while a spectrograph would cost several million dollars. The total capital cost would therefore be roughly $4.2 million U.S., plus $250 000/yr for upkeep. A 2.0m telescope would cost $3 million, and the dome would cost $85 000.

How to proceed?

We must first establish a working group of astronomers interested in obtaining a modest aperture facility for Canadian astronomers. We would be happy to hear from all those interested. Since the idea is to provide a facility that is of value to as many Canadian astronomers as possible, we must first decide on: (1) the telescope aperture and instrumentation that would be most effective at meeting our modest-aperture needs; (2) a high-quality as well as accessible site; and (3) a workable budget. Many questions remain to be answered, and we will be recording all discussions so that the process is transparent.

Several possibilities present themselves. We may pursue funding for the construction of a new modest aperture telescope facility. One idea is for a Canadian Arctic Observatory ( http://aries.yorku.ca/~blake/cao.html). The option also exists for the construction of two or more modest aperture telescopes of different sizes or equipped with different instruments, possibly providing access to both the northern and southern hemisphere skies as a 'Mini-Gemini' operation.

Another possibility is to pursue re-commissioning of one of the many modest aperture telescopes that have been phased out at major observatories. This may be a way of gaining access to a telescope quickly, particularly if there is a telescope about to be decommissioned which we can immediately purchase. A situation similar to the University of Toronto Southern Observatory might be negotiated whereby we obtain the telescope for free and take over the operating costs in exchange for providing a fraction of time to the former owner of the telescope. One candidate for such an approach is the 1.0m telescope at La Palma, which is to be decommissioned to free up money for participation in ESO. A final possibility is to find an international partner and share a new 1-2m class telescope.

To conclude, we urge the enterprising minds of Canadian astronomers to consider the value that a modest aperture telescope would add to their own research as well as to their respective educational programs. We invite all those interested in this project to contact us at the following address: blake@ddo.astro.utoronto.ca.