Telescope is an opportunity and a controversy

U officials are anxious for sky time at Mount Graham.

SAFFORD, Ariz. – Climbing the final feet of Emerald Peak on Mount Graham in Arizona, the Large Binocular Telescope’s building rises out of a blend of rocky terrain and spruce fir trees.

The 16-story rotating enclosure that will house the nearly completed telescope looks like a Southwest equivalent of the East Bank’s aluminum-sheathed Weisman Museum.

Nearly two years after its entrance into the Mount Graham International Observatory project, University of Minnesota officials said they’re anxious to get sky time on the telescope, billed as the world’s largest and most powerful.

Located on holy Apache ground that is also home to old-growth forests and an endangered squirrel species, the mountain has awakened debate about who has what rights to the land. Scientists and environmental and indigenous groups have a stake in what should sit on the 10,700-foot peak.

University of Minnesota officials said they are excited about the large telescope, which will feature two 27-feet diameter mirrors that will make it 10 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope.

“We have been trying to get involved in a large telescope project for at least 20 years,” said Len Kuhi, head of the University of Minnesota’s astronomy department.

But the telescope is on Mount Graham, which the Apache tribe considers holy ground.

“(Mount Graham) is the connection between the spiritual world and the world of today,” said Wendsler Nosie, director of Apaches for Cultural Preservation.

American Indian studies department Chairwoman Patricia Albers said she opposes the University’s decision to participate in the project. She said the University is not respecting the spiritual beliefs of American Indians when it would honor beliefs of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

“This bothers me deeply,” she said.

The University received misleading information from the University of Arizona, she said.

University Provost Christine Maziar said she believes the University Board of Regents received more than enough information about the project.

“We deliberated, discussed publicly and worked this issue for considerably longer time than other members of the partnership,” she said.

The regents voted 7-2 in October 2002 to enter the project.

Regents Chairman David Metzen said deciding to vote for the project was not easy.

But because parts of Mount Graham were already developed, he said he decided to vote in support of it.

“Most developments and breakthroughs start out controversial,” Metzen said.

Sky time

The University put $5 million in to the $110 million telescope, which broke ground a decade ago, Kuhi said.

Stanley Hubbard donated the $5 million in January 2001 so the University could join the project and access the telescope.

Stakeholders in the partnership include 25 percent ownership for the University of Arizona, 25 percent each for German and Italian groups and 12.5 percent for the Research Corp., which represents the University, University of Notre Dame and the University of Virginia. The Ohio State University owns the final 12.5 percent.

The University receives approximately 17 view nights a year once the telescope begins operations this fall, Kuhi said.

Numerous universities had expressed interest at one time or another during the project, said Peter Strittmatter, director of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. But the cost of the telescope partnership was too high for some schools.

The partnership will allow the University to trade nights on the telescope for others on any of the 15 other telescopes that the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory owns or operates, Kuhi said.

This includes a variety of visible and invisible light facilities, he said, but the Mount Graham telescope’s large mirrors and powerful imaging dwarf the capabilities of the others.

“The (large telescope) will allow us to understand how the universe formed, how it changed with time and what its likely fate is going to be,” he said.

Richard Green, director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, said the telescope will have the largest light-collecting area on a single telescope in the world. Bigger equals better and stronger, he said.

Holy ground

Despite the scientific advancements, opponents said they feel building the telescope on the Apache holy ground is disrespectful to Apache culture.

In March 2002, members of the University Senate Social Concerns Committee voiced apprehensions about the University entering the project.

“On ethical, material, political and cultural grounds, we cannot afford to join the project,” a 2002 committee report stated.

On April 13, the University of Arizona, which is leading the project, presented the Apache Tribal Council with $120,000 in proposed programs. These included agricultural and economic stimulus packages.

The council rejected the proposal 7-3 last week. Tribe officials said they felt the programs were deceitful and would give the impression that they support the project.

University of Arizona officials who attended the council meeting said they hoped to put the money toward scholarships for Apache high school students.

Irwin Rope, a Mount Graham Coalition board member, referred to the programs as “chicken feed” and said he felt the University of Arizona did not do its homework in consulting the tribal council.

“The university threw us some crumbs,” he said.

Maziar said participating in the telescope project is worth the controversy because, aside from scientific discovery, it allows the University of Minnesota to demonstrate its commitment to inquiry and to take on controversial issues.

“If we weren’t willing to do that, we would be much diminished as an academic institution,” she said.

The project will also help attract top astronomy faculty and graduate students, Maziar said.

Kuhi said the value of the telescope is measured in scientific progress.

“Scientists are always trying to understand how the world works and astronomers are no different except for the fact that what they do has little if any commercial value,” he said. “Astronomy is more like music in ultimately being food for the soul.”