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60-Second Space

Good Things Come from Small Scopes

Smaller ground-based telescopes produce research results that get more citations per dollar spent than the big guys. John Matson reports

When it comes to telescopes, bigger is better. But it’s not always that much better. A new analysis shows that many of the highest-profile astronomy findings come from giant, world-class mountaintop telescopes—but the little guys are making surprising contributions, too.

The typical study using the largest observatories goes on to receive 29 percent more citations in subsequent research, when compared to studies utilizing more modest two- to four-meter telescopes. But those big-scope studies cost about four times as much. The analysis applies only to ground-based observatories.

The study, which appeared in the Astronomical Journal, notes that large, expensive observatories aren’t exactly a waste of money. Only big telescopes can observe the faint, distant objects that existed just after the big bang. But those telescopes are also so sought-after that it can be a challenge just to get in the door.

Smaller observatories often have greater availability, so they can grant observing time to riskier projects that might fizzle out—or produce a breakthrough discovery. [Helmut A. Abt, Scientific Efficiency of Ground-Based Telescopes]

So small telescopes give you more bang for your buck. But some bangs are just too big for them to handle.

—John Matson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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