Telescope benefits eclipsed by tainted truth

We feel compelled to respond to Scott Laderman’s opinion piece on the University’s participation in the Large Binocular Telescope Consortium (“University should not invest in telescope,” Feb. 28).

We are disappointed Laderman has simply restated the positions of the LBT’s opponents, making no effort to examine both sides of the issue or to verify facts. Contrary to his claims, the telescope site is an excellent one, and we believe the impact on the beautiful mountain’s environment will be negligible.

The LBT offers an unmatched opportunity for astronomers to probe the universe for clues to the origins and fates of stars, galaxies and our solar system. The LBT will have 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope, whose images and data from the far reaches of space led to the astounding conclusion that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

We expect the LBT to yield equally profound insights. No other telescope project ever considered by our department has come close to offering the opportunities afforded by the LBT.

If Laderman had done his homework, he would have found that many of the statements in his piece are erroneous. For example, he claims “a considerable portion of the mountain’s virgin spruce forest would be destroyed.” First of all, the LBT building has already been built, and the telescope site and access roads only take up a grand total of 8.6 acres of the 1,300 acres of land above 10,000 feet.

Laderman also says building the LBT on Mount Graham would “gravely impact the habitat of several kinds of plants and animals, especially the endangered red squirrel.” However, part of the observatory project is to establish a 1700-acre refuge for the red squirrel. The LBT consortium was required by the federal government to pay for an independent monitoring of the red squirrel population by five full-time biologists; they have found no impact of the LBT on the squirrels.

In his second point, Laderman says a 1984 National Optical Astronomy Observatory study indicated that 38 sites in the United States were better suited for such a project. However, this study was based on maps and weather data, not on-site studies of actual “seeing” conditions. Also, this study was primarily intended to produce a list of potential new observatory sites. On-site studies take two to three years, and no decision can be made without them. When the detailed “seeing” studies were made on Mount Graham, it turned out to be an excellent site.

Interestingly, Mt. Hopkins – the site of the Smithsonian/University of Arizona Multiple-Mirror Telescope – ranked 57th in the NOAO survey. This is known to be an excellent site, and several University astronomers have used this telescope and can attest to this.

Given the inaccuracies in Laderman’s first two points, we feel some skepticism is warranted regarding the rest of his piece. We in the astronomy department have invested considerable time in trying to understand other points of view on this issue, but Laderman has chosen to ignore such efforts. For example, the University of Arizona worked with several Native American tribes early in the process to ensure the LBT’s specific location would not trespass on sacred sites. The University of Arizona also runs a successful science program for Indian youth on Mount Graham.

We believe the university environment should stimulate honest and open discussion, and we welcome such debate on these issues. Members of our department are aware of the concerns noted in Mr. Laderman’s article and have worked to resolve them. We feel Laderman’s article does nothing to advance the debate or contribute to successful resolution of these conflicts.

We hope the readers of the Daily as well as the University community will examine both sides of the issue as they form their opinions regarding the value of this project. We welcome readers to find out more on the Web by visiting www.astro.umn.edu/lbt.

 

Eric Hallman,
April Homich,
Evan Skillman
and Chick Woodward
are in the department of astronomy.
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