U. of Colorado buys into 3.5 meter telescope consortium in southeastern New Mexico

September 07, 2001

The University of Colorado at Boulder has joined a consortium of five major universities that are conducting research using a 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory, located northeast of Las Cruces, N.M.

The Astrophysical Research Consortium, or ARC, consists of Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins University, New Mexico State University and CU-Boulder.

Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, or APS, at CU-Boulder has long been recognized as an outstanding program, but until now the department has not had its own facility from which to conduct studies in ground-based observational astronomy, according to Michael Shull, chair of the APS department.

"The faculty have done just fine," said Shull. "We've used telescopes all around the world, including Kitt Peak in Arizona, Cerro Tololo in Chile, Mt. Palomar in California, the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

"What we've never had is the ability to go to one of these telescopes on short notice with a brand new idea and try it out," said Shull. "We didn't have the funding to have our students build instruments or try out new techniques."

In 1996, APS developed a strategic plan to start a new undergraduate astronomy degree and obtain access to a powerful telescope. On July 1st, their telescope dream became reality. "We're not fully paid-off yet, and we are still fund-raising, but we raised the initial money we needed to buy into the large telescope," Shull said.

Most of the $450,000 needed to join the consortium has come from private sources, including friends and alumni of the university. CU faculty alone have donated more than $330,000 of their own money to the project. From the university, Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Spear and Provost Phil DiStefano were instrumental in procuring additional funds.

CU-Boulder's share is one-16th of the cost involved in building and maintaining Apache Point, which recently confirmed the discovery of the most distant quasars.

The university's commitment to the consortium is not limited solely to money. APS also is required to provide a state-of-the-art component to the telescope facility -- in this case a new infrared camera valued at $450,000. The camera project is being led by CASA Associate Director Jon Morse and is being built by students and faculty at CASA's Research Park facility, with the assistance of Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder.

Ball and CASA also are working together to build the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph for the Hubble Space Telescope, a $44 million instrument to be installed during a servicing mission in early 2004.

According to Shull, the department is still about $350,000 away from its goal of funding the infrared camera for the ARC consortium.

CU-Boulder is an equal partner in terms of observing time in the ARC Consortium, receiving allocations during 40 nights a year to conduct research. The first observing run is scheduled for Sept. 24 to Sept. 26 and will focus primarily on galaxy clusters, a project of APS faculty members Erica Ellingson and John Stocke.

CU-Boulder will have additional "commissioning time" on the telescope to verify that the infrared camera is working properly, Shull said. The university also plans to install equipment on campus, which will allow users to remotely operate the telescope. Savings in terms of time and travel will be tremendous, as faculty members must leave campus for several days at a time to observe on site.

CU undergraduate students also will have a chance to use the instrument. "Any qualified astronomy major who submits a proposal, in particular for a senior thesis, will have a crack at using this telescope," said Shull.

The ARC telescope shares the 10,000-foot peak at Apache Point with several other astronomical research projects, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the National Solar Observatory. Completed in 1993, the ARC telescope has an annual operating and maintenance budget of $1.2 million.

"The next phase of our fund raising campaign over the next five years is to get CU a share of an 8-meter telescope," said Shull. "If we're going to be participants in modern astronomy, our faculty and students deserve the best tools on Earth."

University of Colorado at Boulder

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