The Lick Observatory in the mountains east of San Jose, California, is the testing grounds for all-new technology developed by graduate students in the Univeristy of California system. At least, it has been. Now it's being defunded, it's an open question where testing will take place in the not-so-distant future.

Lick Observatory had the first laser-guide star for adaptive optics. Image credit: Laurie Hatch

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Transferring funding from Lick Observatory to other telescopes may seem like a minor bit of budgetary shuffling, but it's a bigger deal than defunding a single location. You can get the whole, convoluted picture at this feature in The Daily Californian, but the short version is that the Lick Observatory is the only telescope fully-owned by the University of California. That makes it the only telescope that graduate students are allowed to tinker with when trying out experimental equipment.

While the universities have timeshares at other observatories like the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, those observatories are under so much global demand that tinkering is unwelcome. Yet tinkering is exactly how progress is made. UC Davis doctoral student of applied science Sona Hosseini explains:

"If (UC Office of the President) doesn't allow students to do this — to mess up and rebuild and mess up and rebuild — we are just going to continue doing what we already know how to do and never do anything new."

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The Lick Observatory has been the test bed for all sorts of astronomical equipment. Deep-space photography was perfected at Lick during the 1900s, and the first digital detector was developed at the observatory in 1971. It bounced a laser off the moon in 1969, precisely measuring the distance from here to there. It was one of the first places to try out Doppler radial-velocity techniques for finding exoplanets, and was one of the first telescopes to robotically search for supernovae and succeed.

The Lick Observatory in the early 1900s. Image credit: Alice Hare/San José Library

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I'm not an entirely objective reporter — once upon a time, I worked in an experimental astrophysics laboratory at a University of California campus. We were attempting to build a filter that would remove all that pesky optical light and leave us with just the microwaves of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation. Alas, although filters to block microwaves are common (just check out the front window of any microwave), we didn't know what one that blocked everything except microwaves should look like. The rigs I was working on didn't make it to field testing while I was around, but plenty of my friends and classmates have spent long nights at Lick.

The telescope at Lick Observatory is protected during the day by a sheltering dome. Image credit: Romain Guy

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Lick has funding for now, but that $1.5 million is going to be shifted to other telescopes and observatories until the budget drops to nothing by 2018. Even worse, this isn't the only telescope facing funding cuts that will inhibit the development of new equipment. Researchers at Caltech are also wincing as the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) at Mauna Kea is limping along with a reduced budget, and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA) in the Inyo Mountains is facing funding cuts after missing out on National Science Foundation grants. With all these experimental telescopes facing cuts and flat-out defunding, I don't know where California's graduate students will test out new equipment for telescopes in the future.

Read more about the Lick Observatory here, or voice your support for the observatory.