Astronomers crowd-funding to save Mopra telescope and complete research

mopraWhat has Australian science funding come to when a team of astronomers is using Kickstarter to raise funds to try to save an Australian telescope involved in mapping the Milky Way?

The 22-metre diameter Mopra Radio Telescope, based near Coonabarabran in western New South Wales, is slated to be shut down by the end of the year after cuts to the CSIRO budget. The closure will cut short a massive international project, which has been underway for four years, to record the most detailed map of the southern portion of the Milky Way galaxy. That will leave the map unfinished and our knowledge incomplete.

Mopra is a special kind of radio telescope able to record the high frequency radio emission that comes from molecules in space. Mopra is the only telescope capable of obtaining this new view of the Galaxy.

The whole Mopra survey of the Galaxy will take three more seasons to complete and the team is looking to raise $65,000 through Kickstarter to make that happen. So far, they are at just under $43,000 with about 4 weeks to go.  There are a range of rewards available from honourable mentions through to mission patches and getting to ‘own’ an interstellar cloud.

You can only applaud the scientists’ initiative in doing this; but at a policy level it’s a lousy way to run a scientific endevour. For the government to withdraw funding for a project so close to completion is just terrible management. Science of this sort simply shouldn’t need to resort to crowd-funding. The sad irony is that by successfully finding another route to funding, the scientists will inadvertently encourage this sort of poor decision-making.

Also, while there’s a lot to be said for crowd-funding science, it does turn scientific funding into a sort of popularity contest which may well end up with the exciting, rather than the important, projects being backed. Mopra gets funded because people can see giving a Christmas present of an interstellar cloud, something else doesn’t get funded because it doesn’t have that nice hook.

That said, Mopra is a great project and, if you have a few dollars sitting about, it is certainly worth backing. It’s just sad that this reflects the current state of Australian scientific funding.

The Mopra Kickstarter campaign is here.

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