Astronomers see a clearer future with Arizona telescope

by Dan Haugen

Thanks to recent investments in two major telescope projects, University astronomers can look forward to not only seeing billions of light years into space but also to a potential increase in the amount of research funds it attracts.

Earlier this month, the Board of Regents approved the controversial $5 million purchase of a 5 percent share in the Mount Graham International Observatory project currently under construction in Arizona.

Interim University President Robert Bruininks said in a letter explaining his support that the telescope will offer research and teaching opportunities unavailable anywhere else.

Previously, the University owned two research telescopes: one at the O’Brien Observatory, located in Marine on the St. Croix, Minn., and another at the Mount Lemmon Observing Facility in Arizona.

The O’Brien Observatory has one of the first infrared telescopes ever built, but it’s small by today’s standards. The Mount Lemmon telescope is twice its size, but University astronomy professor Robert Gehrz said it’s still “not big enough to do a lot of the things we want to do.”

Once completed in 2004, the Mount Graham telescope will be able to see five times farther than the Mount Lemmon telescope. Its two eight-meter mirrors will be able to create resolution comparable to a 25-meter mirror. Mount Lemmon’s is 60 inches and O’Brien’s is 30 inches.

The Large Binocular Telescope will be the highest-altitude infrared telescope in North America, which is significant because water absorbs infrared radiation, and since air is drier at higher altitudes, there is less interference at those heights.

“In order to do intricate measurements, we need to get at very high altitudes – heights that are above most of the water vapor,” Gehrz said. “There are only a few mountains in the world that are suitable for doing that.”

Gehrz said as a graduate student at the University in 1969, he was the first astronomer to scout Mount Graham as a possible telescope location.

Gehrz’ work on the Science Working Group for NASA’s Space Infrared Telescope Facility will get him and his colleagues access to that telescope as well.

The facility, a follow-up to the Hubble telescope, will be launched into orbit in January. It will be the largest infrared telescope ever sent into space.

The Mount Graham telescope will allow researchers to view objects with incredible detail, Gehrz said, but the Space Infrared Telescope Facility will have remarkable distance. Astronomers will use it to look beyond the edge of the known universe.

“Combine the two and you’re going to see an enormous increase in our capabilities,” Gehrz said. “It means that we can really begin to bring in big research contracts.”

Last year, the astronomy department drew in just $1.6 million in sponsored research projects – small next to the more than $22 million the University of Arizona’s astronomy department attracted.

Gehrz said the department already has projects in mind for the new telescopes. Gehrz would like to continue studying nova explosions and comets, among other phenomena.

There are two types of astronomy researchers at the University. One is the observer, who uses telescopes to record data about the sky. There are also theorists who take the observers’ raw data and attempt to make sense of it.

“What we’re trying to do is study the universe and see how the laws of physics are operating in different parts of the universe,” Gehrz said. “By doing so, we can often learn a lot about how to apply the laws of physics here on Earth.”

There are often multiple uses for astronomy data, Gehrz said. For example, he and other astronomers funded by the U.S. Air Force are working on an infrared map of the sky. Once completed, the Air Force will be able to use it to help program a missile defense system, which uses infrared to track warheads.

“You don’t want to be shooting off defense missiles at stars,” Gehrz said. “The Air Force uses the kind of data we get for their own purposes, and we use it for studying astrophysics, too.”

In addition to the Air Force, other organizations that fund astronomy research at the University include NASA and the National Science Foundation.

NASA and the Air Force could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman for the National Science Foundation said he couldn’t speculate on whether the new telescopes would better the University’s chance at winning research grants.