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MU invests in Arizona observatory

Monday, November 18, 2013 | 3:44 p.m. CST; updated 8:32 p.m. CST, Monday, November 18, 2013

COLUMBIA — MU is buying into an observatory in Arizona with the intention of using its telescope to do deeper research and increasing opportunities for students.

The investment in the WIYN Observatory in Tucson will give the university more consistent and reliable access to a high-powered telescope, allowing 15 nights of research per year. Without the buy-in, the observatory is available to whomever wants to use it, but getting access is a competitive process, said Angela Speck, MU director of astronomy.

Students in the astronomy program will have opportunities to go use the telescope and do more extensive research.

The 3.5-meter diameter of the WIYN telescope is between eight and nine times larger than that of MU's telescope, said Eric Hooper, interim director of the WIYN Observatory. The larger area allows the telescope to collect 75 times more light in the same amount of time, he said.

Smaller telescopes, such as the 16-inch telescope at MU's Laws Observatory, are often used for education and public outreach, though they can be used for research, too. Large telescopes, such as the WIYN telescope, are used for research and advanced education, Hooper said.

The telescope's ability to collect more light "allows you to see things that are more faint," Speck said.

She said the increase in size is comparable to using a camera with more pixels and will result in a significant increase in detail.

The power and clarity of the telescope will allow Speck to keep up on one of her interests: looking at molecules. She compared molecular activity to what happens in neon lights, where electrons absorb energy and you can see them moving. Electrons in molecules can use shock waves or energy from nearby stars to move and emit light, which Speck can watch at the new observatory.

Because Columbia has "such terrible light pollution," Speck said, a larger telescope would not work as well in Missouri as it does in Arizona.

In addition, low atmospheric turbulence, which are irregular air motions, near the Arizona telescope allow the telescope's two cameras to take very sharp images, Hooper said.

MU's use of the telescope will begin Aug. 1. The university will pay an annual fee of $130,000 to use the telescope. This year, the provost's office and the Physics and Astronomy Department paid $80,000 and $50,000, respectively, Speck said.

Speck said some observatories eventually close because they don't have enough funding. MU's investment will help fund the WIYN Observatory, which will also help ensure that the university will have long-term access to an observatory.

"It's a realization for the future that funding for science will be bad, so it's become an imperative to buy into a telescope," Speck said.

The WIYN Observatory is part of Kitt Peak National Observatory in southern Arizona. The facility is owned by the WIYN consortium, which is made up of the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale University and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.


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