The future operation of the world-famous radio telescope at the Parkes Observatory is in doubt because of impending funding cuts to the CSIRO.
A leaked management briefing note shows that the iconic Dish could even stop operating if a shortfall of $4 million cannot be made up through external funding sources.
CSIRO's acting director of astronomy and space science, Douglas Bock, said: "CSIRO has no plans to cease operations at any of our astronomy facilities or reduce appropriations to astronomy research."
Dr Bock also said: "CSIRO has not received any formal notification from AAL [Astronomy Australia Limited] of any changes to their future funding of astronomy in Australia."
However, in an email to CSIRO astronomy staff dated May 6, Dr Bock said: "A short time ago Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL) released its draft budget for FY16-17."
He told CSIRO staff: "Based on the AAL recommendation and without additional resources we expect there would be significant changes to how we operate from July 2017."
A briefing note from CSIRO also dated May 6 and seen by Fairfax Media says that if the additional resources are not possible, then "potential savings for [financial year] 17/18 and beyond [include]:
- Stop operating ATCA [the Australian Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri]
- Stop operating Parkes, but substantial contribution from Breakthrough [the search for extraterrestrial life announced by Stephen Hawking last year]
- Reduce engineering program – fully funded external work only
The note also says that redundancies as soon as next financial year cannot be ruled out.
Astronomy Australia Limited is a not-for-profit company established to distribute funds from NCRIS, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, and other funding sources to Australian astronomy projects.
CSIRO had expected to continue to receive $4 million a year in funding for its astronomy division, however, according to the leaked document, that will reduce to $3.1 million in 2016/17 and the "proposed allocation for 17/18 and beyond is zero".
The facility at Parkes costs about $4.1 million a year and ATCA at Narrabri costs about $5.8 million. The overall budget for CSIRO's telescope program is about $20 million a year.
In his letter to CSIRO astronomy staff, Dr Bock said: "AAL funding represents a significant fraction of the CASS/ATNF budget and so we will need to make changes to accommodate this."
The Australian Telescope Users' Committee, which represents the scientific community, met on Thursday and Friday to consider these matters.
Fairfax Media understands that a likely recommendation emerging from CSIRO consultation with ATUC will be that Parkes and Narrabri raise external funds by charging for access to the telescope facilities.
This would end decades of "open skies" policy that allocates free access to telescopes based on scientific merit.
Alan Duffy, an astronomer at Swinburne University of Technology, said that the Parkes radio telescope retains "key scientific capacity that we would not want to lose".
Peter Quinn, director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) at the University of Western Australia, said that the astronomical community has a process for dispensing NCRIS funding through AAL.
He said: "I have every confidence in the AAL board to do that job."
Matthew Bailes, who is professor of astronomer at Swinburne, regularly uses Parkes. He said: "Continued investment in instrumentation has allowed Parkes to remain at the forefront of science for 50 years."
"We recently commissioned an ultra-wide band receiver from CSIRO to install at Parkes next year," he said.
Further, he said the Breakthrough search for extraterrestrial life, which Professor Bailes is leading in Australia, is installing multimillion dollar instrumentation at Parkes, including a new supercomputer.
Labor's shadow minister for science, Kim Carr, said that Australians would be "shocked to hear that the Dish is threatened with closure".
Mr Carr said continued uncertainty over science funding showed the "hollowness of the Turnbull government's commitment to science and innovation".
When asked if a Shorten government would guarantee funding to Parkes and Narrabri, Mr Carr said he would not be making any funding announcements today.
A spokesman for the government said: "Funding to the CSIRO continues to increase to record levels.
"The Dish astronomy facility will continue to be funded into the future."
Sam Popovski, secretary of the CSIRO Staff Association, has written to Dr Bock expressing their concern about "the future of Australia's astronomical observatory capacity and the security of employment for [CSIRO] staff".