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University Of Virginia Joins Large Binocular Telescope Consortium

October 3, 2002-- The University of Virginia announced today that it has joined the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) project, a major new telescope being constructed in Arizona. It will be the most powerful in the world when completed in 2004.

U.Va. simultaneously announced its intention to take steps to respond to the needs of Native American peoples in Arizona and Virginia. Native American groups have voiced concerns about the location of the telescope on a mountain that some consider sacred.

The international partnership of universities and research institutes in the LBT Research Consortium includes the University of Arizona, which leads the consortium; Ohio State University; the University of Notre Dame; and the Research Corp., plus partners in Italy and Germany. University of Minnesota Interim President Robert H. Bruininks announced Sept. 27 that he has recommended consortium membership to his Board of Regents.

U.Va.’s $4 million investment will give its astronomers seven nights per year of dedicated astronomical observing time on the telescope, as well as access to several other smaller telescopes world-wide. Access will be provided through the Research Corp., a Tucson science advancement foundation that is a partner in the telescope project, and the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory. In addition to funding, U.Va. will provide instrumentation expertise to the telescope consortium and will contribute to the astronomical research.

In announcing the agreement, U.Va. Vice President and Provost Gene D. Block said, "This has been a difficult decision because of our desire to weigh concerns about the project expressed by Native American groups with our scientific interest in joining with partners on the most powerful telescope ever built. We have concluded that joining the consortium is critical for the future of astronomical research at U.Va. We're hopeful that we can participate in a way that is respectful of the needs and concerns of Native American people."

“We are pleased that the University of Arizona has agreed to involve Native American representatives in future land-use decisions at the site,” he said.

The LBT and two smaller telescopes are located on Mount Graham in the Coronado National Forest near Safford, Ariz. The site was selected years ago 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. Astronomers will conduct studies on dark matter, quasars and black holes, how stars form and the origins and evolution of the universe.

"This is an important step in our effort to become a top astronomy department," said Robert Rood, chair of the U.Va. astronomy department. "Involvement with the LBT will help us recruit outstanding students and faculty and meets our goal of gaining access to some of the world's best telescopes."

Rood added that the telescope project also will be a good fit for U.Va. astronomers, some of whom are experts at designing and working with innovative telescope instruments.

For several years the project has faced objections from environmental groups and from members of the San Carlos Apaches and the White Mountain Tribe of Arizona, who consider the telescope site one of four sacred mountains important to their rituals and religious beliefs. Many of the objections have been directed toward the University of Arizona, which initiated the project several years ago with little involvement from Native American groups.

To address these concerns, Block asked the U.Va. Faculty Senate to appoint an ad hoc advisory committee, which considered the issues for and against University involvement with the telescope. The group concluded, “The committee is convinced that the project is of vital importance to the University of Virginia astronomy program. An exhaustive review of opportunities to take part in the programs for other large telescope projects reveals no opportunity combining the LBT’s capabilities generally and the match of its specific instrumentation to the research interests of the faculty.”

At the same time, the committee made several recommendations “to change for the better [the consortium universities’] relations with Native American communities.” They include the following, which Block said the University has agreed to adopt:

*Urging the University of Arizona, the lead consortium institution, to create a Native American Advisory Committee to help guide future decisions on land use at the Mount Graham site (Prior to this recommendation, the University of Arizona was considering creating such a committee, Block said, and has agreed to do so.)

*Providing educational and employment opportunities for Native

  • Americans at the observatory and member universities, such as:
    Cultural and educational exchanges for students and faculty with members of the San Carlos and White Mountain Tribes;
  • Strengthening the University's relationships with Native American peoples in Virginia, particularly with the Monacan Nation;
  • Working with the U.S. Forest Service to improve access to Mount Graham by Apache people (the Forest Service manages Mount Graham); and
  • Increasing Native American representation at U.Va. by actively recruiting Native American students and faculty, and by enhancing scholarly research in Native American Studies.

The committee concluded, "It is our hope that [by following these recommendations] participation might lead not to only to greater scientific understanding, but also to a spirit of renewal and understanding among the many communities affected by the project."

"We are sincere about helping the Apache people in ways related to our educational mission," Rood said. "As astronomers, we want as little negative impact on the mountain as possible and to ensure that the Apache people have access to the mountaintop."

The LBT, now in its sixth year of construction, will overcome many of the technological and physical barriers that have limited ground-based astronomy. 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 and is expected to show detail on as fine a scale as a single-mirror telescope 74 feet across -- as clear as pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. Currently the world's largest single-mirror telescope is 33 feet across.

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

The University will invest about $4 million into the project: about $2 million for observation time on the LBT and $2 million to the Steward Observatory for use of other telescopes. The remaining $6 million will be used by the astronomy department for its telescope instrumentation lab, for renovation of space, to support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and for education and outreach projects.

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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