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U.Va. Officials To Discuss Large Binocular Telescope Project

April 17, 2002-- Five representatives of the University of Virginia came away from a trip to Arizona last week with a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding its proposed partnership in a large binocular telescope consortium.

The trip to the Mount Graham International Observatory and surrounding area April 6-9 included meetings with environmentalists, activists, local elected officials, representatives of the University of Arizona and Apache tribal members.

"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. We were told by some groups that we were the first potential telescope consortium partner to visit with tribal members and listen to their concerns."

Other members of the visiting group were Ellen Contini-Morava, chair of the aAnthropology department; Virginia Hymes, a retired anthropology professor; Robert Rood, chair of the astronomy department; and Steve Majewski, an astronomy professor.

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.

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.

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. When the U.S. Forest Service set aside a restricted area to protect the squirrels, opposition shifted to concerns of the nearby San Carlos Apaches, who consider the site one of four sacred mountains important to their rituals and religious beliefs.

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

The U.Va. contingent’s itinerary, which was planned by the visiting faculty, included a meeting with the Apache coalition.

U.Va.’s representatives also met 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 -- for example, 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."

In addition, the U.Va. group 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.

Located in the Coronado National Forest about 12 miles southwest of Safford, 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. 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.

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.

U.Va. officials are in the process of evaluating the information gleaned from the trip. "Once all the facets of this very complex issue have been weighed, which I expect will take several weeks, the University will arrive at a decision regarding its participation in the consortium," Block said.

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THE LARGE BINOCULAR TELESCOPE

The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) 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, while collecting light more than 30 times more rapidly. Astronomers will explore deeper into space and with greater clarity than ever before.

In one mode of operation, the light from the two mirrors can be combined to eliminate light from a bright star to facilitate detection of a nearby planet or interplanetary disk. The LBT can be quickly set at different modes to permit optimum use under different observing conditions.

Astronomers will conduct studies on dark matter, quasars and black holes, how stars form, and the origins and evolution of the universe.

The telescope is being built on Mount Graham, near Safford, Ariz., at the Mount Graham International Observatory. The site is at an elevation of 10,400 feet and is home to several other international telescope projects. It will be equipped with adaptive optics to correct for atmospheric distortion. The mirrors, already cast at the Steward Observatory's Mirror Lab, are a lightweight spun-cast honeycomb structure. They were designed and built using an innovative technology that allows for their giant size. The Steward Observatory is part of the College of Science of the University of Arizona.

The international partnership of universities and research institutes in the LBT Research Consortium currently include the University of Arizona, which leads the consortium, Ohio State University, the University of Notre Dame, and the Research Corporation and partners in Italy and Germany. The Research Corporation is a not-for-profit foundation that supports research in science and science education. The University of Minnesota and the University of Virginia are considering joining the LBT Research Consortium.

Contact: Fariss Samarrai, (434) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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