Newbies Guide to Town Halls at #AAS223

When I first started going to Town Hall meetings at AAS Meetings, I was very disappointed. I couldn’t understand what was going on. It felt like I had turned on an episode of a soap opera in the middle of a season. There was clearly a plot playing out, but 1) I didn’t have any context or backstory and 2) people were saying things, even harsh criticisms, so diplomatically, I couldn’t figure out what they were really trying to say. One thing I knew for sure: these meetings were important. All the big wigs were there and commenting, oftentimes very passionately. I knew that if I wanted to be able to forecast funding (e.g., NSF) and infrastructure (e.g., NASA, NOAO) situations in order to plan my career strategically, I needed to at least hear these conversations. Ever since then, I pass up lunch with friends, I buy a sandwich and head to the Town Halls, and if you want to play this game we call professional astronomy, I recommend you do the same. (Town Halls are almost always during lunch from 12:45–1:45pm.) Below is my newbies guide to these Town Hall meetings and my current off-the-top-of-my-head take on the issues which are likely to be discussed at each of them. Hopefully, this will motivate you to attend but also help you not be quite so lost when you walk in the door.

Town Halls usually begin with a presentation by a senior person from that organization. The presentations are almost always extremely dull with many bullets and lots of text, budget numbers, and acronyms. Don’t try to absorb everything, instead, pick one or two themes to try to focus on. I try to pay attention to big changes or anything that is contrary to what I had thought before. (For example, The Super Amazing Spectrograph (SASsy) is scheduled for first light in Spring 2014 not 2015 — wow, that’s much sooner than I thought!) I will also use my neighbors and/or the Twitter-verse to help me understand some of the presentation’s points or audience reactions.

The good stuff comes at the end when people start to ask questions and dialog begins.

  • Pay close attention to the questions: many times there is a very large issue being raised by a seemingly innocuous question.
  • Pay attention to who is asking the question: it is oftentimes a very senior and influential scientist that has a stake in a big project that will be affected by this organization’s decisions.
  • Try to read the undertones: If people chuckle or gasp and you don’t know why, ask. That means something interesting just happened. Ask someone sitting near you or Twitter.

Now for a break down, in chronological order. I’m not listing all of them, just the ones that I think are the big career influencing players.


NSF, Maryland Ballroom C

As a primarily ground-based astronomer with no direct access to private telescopes, the NSF Town Hall is always my highest priority. This year, however, it’s gonna be an even more of a doozy than ever. Due to a paucity of funds, the NSF is being forced to consider shutting down some facilities. In a recent “Dear Colleague” letter (in this case, almost a Dear John),  the NSF gave an update on the status of making decisions on those closings. Facilities impacted include Arecibo in Puerto Rico; the 2.1m, 4m, WIYN, MacMath-Pierce Solar telescopes on Kitt Peak; SOAR in Chile, Green Bank Telescope in West Virgina; and the VLBA. I expect most of the discussion to focus on this “divestiture” but there will also be discussion about the funding outlook for US ground-based astronomy including the big ticket items like Gemini and ALMA.

(btw, you’ll need to know that the Astro part of the NSF is called “AST”, the Division of Astronomical Sciences, which is in the “MPS”, Math and Physical Sciences, Directorate.)

Kepler, Potomac Ballroom C

That they are having a Town Hall at all is noteable. In May, Kepler lost the second of four gyroscope-like reaction wheels which essentially ended the original (and very successful) planet-finding mission. Apparently, there is a new mission concept, dubbed K2, which would continue Kepler’s planet-hunting capability, and introduce new opportunities to observe star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies and supernovae. Expect discussions of capabilities, budgets, and dates. There will also likely be a summary of the data taken before the gyro failure.


NASA, Potomac Ballroom A

There was a recent bomb dropped on the Planetary Science Community announcing a reorganization of their primary funding program, ROSES. (Read about it here and here.) I’m not sure if that will dominate the discussion or not. Either way, expect an update on budget forecast and current and future NASA missions, including HST & JWST, which have their own Town Hall on Wednesday (see below). There’s gotta be something else, but I’m not sure what…if you have any ideas, let us know in the comments.

In their own words:

NASA Astrophysics Division Director, Paul Hertz, will provide an update to NASA’s Astrophysics mission, its projects and budget. John Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, will also attend

Thirty Meter Telescope, National Harbor 4

My rather naive and limited understanding is that there’s a battle going on between the TMT and the Giant Magellan Telescope (Town Hall on Thursday, see below). They are both 30m class telescopes with very similar science goals and price tags. GMT is on Las Campanas in Chile while TMT will be on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Their consortia are different with TMT being more “Keck”-like with Caltech, U. of California, and private funding while GMT consortia includes UArizona, Carnegie, UTexas, and Harvard as major players. Both projects appear to have significant international collaborations. My understanding is that “we” can only afford one of them but both projects continue to move forward in a telescope-building version of a game of chicken.

Notably, TMT has gotten all-important approval to build on Mauna Kea. They also seem to have recently gotten a lot more international partners. I would expect an update on budget, telescope design, and timelines.


NRAO, Potomac Ballroom C

I’m not a radio astronomer so I’m not really in the loop here. I would expect mostly discussion of the possible shut down of Arecibo, VLBA, and Green Bank telescopes by the NSF. I would also expect an update on the budget forecast, instrumentation, and performance of ALMA.

In their own words:

This Town Hall will inform the AAS membership about the status of National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) science and science operations, development programs, and construction projects. This Town Hall will open with a reception that will be followed by a presentation by NRAO Director Tony Beasley that will update the membership regarding: (a) construction progress at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA); (b) science opportunities and development programs at ALMA, the Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), the Green Bank Telescope (GBT), and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA); (c) recent science results from across NRAO; and (d) technical development for the next generation of radio astronomy research facilities. The NRAO Town Hall will include at least 30 minutes for answering audience questions.


Hubble and JWST, Potomac Ballroom A

I am really looking forward to using JWST once launched. As far as I know, there’s not going to be anything too controversial or dramatic here. I’m looking forward to an update on instrument performance, budgets, and timelines of milestones leading up to an expected launch date of October 2018. There will also like be discussion of the plans and timeline for decommissioning HST.

National Research Council (NRC), National Harbor 3

I have no idea, but these are the folks that run the Decadal Survey, and that has had a lot of influence. If anybody knows what will be the major topics of this Town Hall, please let us know in the comments.


Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), National Harbor 3

Repeated from above:  My rather naive and limited understanding is that there’s a battle going on between the TMT (Town Hall on Tuesday, see above) and the GMT. They are both 30m class telescopes with very similar science goals and price tags. GMT is on Las Campanas in Chile while TMT will be on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Their consortia are different with TMT being more “Keck”-like with Caltech, U. of California, and private funding while GMT consortia includes UArizona, Carnegie, UTexas, and Harvard as major players. Both projects appear to have significant international collaborations. My understanding is that “we” can only afford one of them but both projects continue to move forward in a telescope-building version of a game of chicken.

Notably, GMT is further along that the TMT. They have broken ground on Las Campanas and have cast three out of the seven mirrors. I would expect an update on the construction, telescope and instrument design, and funding support. If you know more about what to expect from this one, please share in the comments.

NOAO, Maryland Ballroom C

NSF might basically shut down Kitt Peak and gut access to small class telescopes in the northern hemisphere. This could be very bad for US-based Astronomers with no private access. Like the NSF Town Hall on Monday, this will likely be a heated and emotional meeting.

Alright, that’s my take on the various major Town Halls happening next week. If I missed anything or got anything wrong, please don’t hesitate to say so in the comments. I’m gonna go pack and paint my nails…see y’all soon!

5 comments… add one
  • Bruce Macintosh Jan 3, 2014 @ 22:16

    Effectively town halls in all but name:

    WFIRST on wednesday. Since WFIRST is the Next Big Thing in NASA missions, it should be pretty interesting, and a chance to have early input on a major future mission. For those who haven’t been following, WFIRST is now proposed to fly with a 2.4m primary mirror, and in addition to its dark energy, wide-field survey, and microlensing missions now has a proposed exoplanet coronagraph.

    NASA Exoplanet Exploration Program town hall on tuesday night (I’ll be doing a brief WFIRST coronagraph update) ; Gemini town hall on tuesday night.

    Also, I wouldn’t say that there’s a TMT vs GMT battle any more. GMT decided not to seek the nebulous promise of federal funding. Both may still be courting some of the same of major potential private partners, but that’s not a very active rivalry. It’s quite possible there’s enough private and international funding for both to go forward.

  • C Jan 5, 2014 @ 1:44

    So with no federal funding there would be no public access to either telescope… that’s sad for most US astronomers. I guess we can all become simulators.

  • Benjamin Weiner Jan 5, 2014 @ 2:18

    One perspective on the TMT / GMT dynamic is that if one project thinks it is “ahead” (that could mean anything, including ahead in technology, fundraising, or simply perception) it has an incentive to persuade people that “we” can only afford one and should jump on the winning boat. In other words, that is also part of the rhetoric.

    Because both of these projects are really big and have a lot of partners and will need to recruit more, it isn’t clear who “we” refers to really. It is also much too early to assume that the list of institutions is fixed (more will surely join) or that there won’t be national participation. If nothing else I might expect both consortia to attempt to raise money for instruments through NSF programs, and something you might ask about is what how future funding decisions like that might be leveraged into public access.

    Based on stories about the 8-m class telescopes, I really think that the future of these projects hinges on the economy and its effect not only on the federal budget but institutional endowments. A good economy in the 80s-90s enabled partners who did not previously have big (or sometimes any) telescope access to buy in.

    (I don’t speak for the University of Arizona obviously.)

  • Jennifer Lotz Jan 5, 2014 @ 13:48

    The NSF has entered into a cooperative agreement with the TMT project. The scope of this agreement is fairly limited, and its main goal is to engage NSF AST and the US astronomy community in the planning of a potential TMT-NSF partnership. A U.S. TMT science working group has been set-up to help determine the needs of the U.S. community and develop a path forward for US community involvement with the project. Several of the US TMT SWG member are members of the TMT Science Advisory Committee (including myself), and will be attending the TMT AAS townhall to solicit input from the community.

    The NSF budget constraints have painted a bleak picture for open-access general observer ground-based optical/IR astronomy. Many of us are concerned about a future in which US community will not have open access to the best facilities of the next decade. Please make your voice heard at the townhall or by contacting a member of the US TMT SWG: . Also see the NOAO Current November and December editions for more information about planning for TMT and getting involved with the International Science Development Teams:

  • Betsy Mills Jan 6, 2014 @ 16:42

    Based on my own limited understanding, two additional issues that may be raised at the NRAO town hall (and a bit of background):

    1) NRAO currently has ‘open skies’ access– that is, anyone at any institution, anywhere at the world is able to propose to use NRAO’s telescopes. However, there are hints that this policy may be modified in some fashion in the near future. For example, the planning page for the VLA sky survey states that “All VLASS data will be available immediately to the North American community”.

    2) NSF will soon be announcing a ‘recompetition’ for the organization which runs NRAO (currently AUI). This will be a proposal to select the organization which can best run NRAO for the next 10 years, and can result in new management (as recently occurred with Arecibo) or possibly more significant reorganization. There may be questions about exactly which facilities NSF will be asking bidders to run: in light of proposed divestitures, the operating budget presented to bidders may only be sufficient to include ALMA and the VLA.

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