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LBT Telescope

A model of the Large Binocular Telescope structure to be built at Mount Graham, Ariz. More on the LBT is available online at: http://mgpc3.as.arizona.edu/.

By Fariss Samarrai

Five representatives of the University came away from a recent trip to Arizona with a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding its proposed partnership in a large binocular telescope consortium. No decision has been made as to whether U.Va. will join the telescope partnership.

The trip to the Mount Graham International Observatory and the surrounding area April 6-9 included meetings with Apache tribal members, activists, local elected officials and representatives of the University of Arizona. U.Va. is the first university to visit with Apache tribal members regarding possible membership in the telescope consortium.

“The U.Va. group believes that the visit was valuable,” said Gene D. Block, vice president and provost of U.Va. “It provided an opportunity to hear from a larger group of tribal members and leaders than would have been possible in Charlottesville.” Other members of the visiting group were Ellen Contini-Morava, chair of the anthropology department; Virginia Hymes, a retired anthropology professor; Robert Rood, chair of the astronomy department; and Steve Majewski, an astronomy professor.

The visiting group held a press briefing April 18 to discuss their findings during the trip.

The U.Va. astronomy department has been negotiating with the Research Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., and Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona to become a partner in the LBT consortium and Steward Observatory.

Mount Graham’s significance to the Apache

Mount Graham (above), called Dzil Nchaa Si’an by the Apache, is a Western Apache traditional cultural property. It is regarded by the Apache as the “chief of all mountains” and has served to define the southern boundary of the traditional homeland of the Western Apache people. Its standing as the home of the Gaahn — supernatural beings or spirits — make it a sacred site of crucial importance to Western Apache people. Gaahn appear in different religious ceremonials and serve as critical agents in ritual healing.

Mount Graham is the home of several natural springs whose water is collected by Apache ritual specialists for use in traditional healing ceremonies. The mountain also contains several kinds of stones and minerals, and plants required for religious ceremonies.

For centuries, Mount Graham has been a place where Apache ritual specialists go to pray and dream.

The mountain also for centuries has been an object of prayer for Apache people. Its sacred power can be called on in prayers to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as to provide mental strength when dealing with personal problems and difficulties.

Mount Graham is the site of an unspecified number of Apache burials, including those of men and women who lost their lives in battles. It is regarded as a burial ground of enduring importance.

Source: 1992 testimony of Keith Basso, Ph.D., an anthropologist to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The project, however, has encountered various objections since its inception. Opposition began with environmental groups concerned about the habitat of a subspecies of red squirrel said to be in the top region of the mountain. The U.S. Forest Service set aside a restricted area to protect the squirrels, but the nearby San Carlos Apaches, who consider the site one of four sacred mountains important to their rituals and religious beliefs, also voiced opposition to the observatory project.

A group called the Apache Survival Coalition was formed and has mounted opposition on campuses around the country and has sent representatives to Europe to meet with heads of groups involved in the project.

The U.Va. contingent’s itinerary in Arizona, which was planned by the visiting faculty, included a meeting with the Apache coalition as well as discussions with tribal officials and members of the San Carlos and White Mountain reservations.
“Some of the meetings were pre-arranged with groups or individuals,” Block said. “Other conversations were ad hoc at a cultural event — a Sunrise Ceremony — or other gatherings.

The balance of our discussions with Apache tribal members were with groups and individuals that have expressed strong concerns about the presence of the observatory on Mount Graham.”

The members of the visiting group agreed that if the University were to become a member of the telescope coalition, accommodations would need to be made with the Apache people, possibly involving a dialogue with the Apache people and perhaps some service program or educational outreach activities for the community. Contini-Morava and Hymes both said they would not support U.Va. joining the telescope partnership unless the University of Arizona, the lead member, acknowledges Apache cultural ties to Mount Graham and allows Apache input regarding development of the site. Rood and Majewski said that they are open to reaching out to the Apache people as part of any U.Va. involvement with the telescope.

“Our business is education, and we should look at what we can do, in the educational realm, to play a role with the other consortium universities to reach out in some meaningful way to the Apache communities.” Block said.

He emphasized that a decision as to whether U.Va. will join the telescope partnership is weeks away. “There is a great deal of complexity to this issue,” he said. “We need to take some time to gather the facts, to listen and to understand the many viewpoints before we decide what the appropriate decision is. Whatever the decision, there always will be people who are not satisfied.”

Established in the 1980s, the Mount Graham observatory is the site of two existing telescopes with a third – the Large Binocular Telescope – nearing completion. The binocular telescope will be the largest optical telescope in the world, and its adaptive optics are designed to allow it to see fine detail otherwise visible only from space.

Located in the Coronado National Forest about 12 miles southwest of Safford, Ariz., the site for the observatory was selected from a survey of 280 potential mountain sites on the basis of astronomical considerations such as clear skies, low light pollution, low atmospheric water vapor and ease of access.

“At the time it was established, Mount Graham was perhaps the best undeveloped observatory site in the continental United States,” Block said.

The site already had an Arizona state highway serving other developments on the mountain. A minimal amount of forest was cleared to make room for the observatory buildings.

The Heinrich Hertz Telescope and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope have been operating for several years on the mountain. The building for the Large Binocular Telescope is finished except for some interior work. The various parts of the telescope are mostly completed, and some are in transit to Mount Graham.

During their Arizona trip, the U.Va. group also met with the mayor of nearby Safford, toured the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona and visited with officials and astronomers at the telescope site on Mount Graham.

U.Va.’s participation in the consortium is possible through a $10 million gift from Frank and Wynnette Levinson of Palo Alto, Calif. Levinson studied astronomy at U.Va. and earmarked that money for the astronomy department, which set a priority on joining a large optical telescope project.

The Large Binocular Telescope will be the most powerful telescope in the world. Astronomers say its two giant mirrors — each 27 feet across and positioned side-by-side on a single mount spanning 74 feet — will give a deeper and clearer view of the cosmos than has ever been achieved. By combining light beams from the two mirrors, the telescope can collect light at the same rate as a single mirror 38 feet across. Currently the world’s largest single-mirror telescope is 33 feet across. The LBT is expected to show detail on as fine a scale as a single telescope 74 feet across. It will overcome many of the technological and physical barriers that have limited ground-based astronomy. The LBT should make pictures as clear as those made by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomers will conduct studies on dark matter, quasars and black holes, how stars form and the origins and evolution of the universe.
The international partnership of universities and research institutes in the LBT Research Consortium include the University of Arizona, which leads the consortium, Ohio State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the Research Corp. and partners in Italy and Germany. The Research Corp. is a not-for-profit foundation that supports research in science and science education. In addition to U.Va., the University of Minnesota is considering joining the consortium.



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