Northern Arizona in running for $100 million space observatory









One reason the rich keep getting richer  and the poor keep getting poorer is the rich keep doing the things that made them rich and the poor keep doing the things that make them  poor.



By Peter Corbett The Republic | Tue Sep 24, 2013 7:15 AM

Two northern Arizona sites are among four possible locations for a $100 million observatory that an international consortium plans to develop next year.

The consortium of 1,000 scientists from 28 countries has identified a site south of Seligman in Yavapai County and one near Meteor Crater, east of Flagstaff, for the next-generation Cherenkov Telescope Array observatory.

A decision for siting the observatory, financed with funds from the participating countries, is expected by the end of this year.

Astronomers plan to use the new observatory to study exploding supernova stars and the black hole at the center of our galaxy, among other phenomena. Instead of optical telescopes, it would rely on instruments similar to satellite dishes up to 80 feet in diameter.

“It’s like exploring the universe with different eyes,” said Rene Ong, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA.

Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered in 1930, would be the managing partner of the observatory if one of the Arizona sites was chosen.

The scientists, many of them professors at universities across the globe, will rank the sites by early October. The consortium will select a committee to make the final decision on a site.

The consortium is raising funds for the project from public- and private-sector contributions in the participating countries. Ong said the host country would be expected to contribute at least $10 million initially.

Selection of an Arizona site doubtless would boost the northern Arizona economy.

The observatory would include more than $100 million in development costs and an annual operating budget of $7 million, said Jeff Hall, Lowell Observatory director.

The cutting-edge observatory could follow the completion last year of the $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope southeast of Flagstaff, the fifth-largest telescope in the continental United States. It would also add to the astronomy research conducted at 30 observatories statewide and the three state universities.

2 competing sites

The consortium is looking for a site with flat terrain and a low risk of earthquakes, volcanoes and floods. It also is seeking a location with clear, dry air and dark skies.

The other two possible observatory sites for the Northern Hemisphere are at San Pedro Martir, Baja California Norte, Mexico, and the island of Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands.

A second observatory is planned for the Southern Hemisphere.

Arizona has long been a draw for astronomers because of its clear, dry air, remote mountain peaks and some of the nation’s most progressive dark-sky ordinances that aim to reduce urban light pollution.

Arizona’s $1 billion in capital investment in observatories and research facilities includes Kitt Peak, southwest of Tucson, and a ground-based gamma-ray instrument at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, south of Tucson.

The new observatory would offer a substantial leap in technology. The planned Cherenkov Telescope Array, or CTA, would be 10 times as powerful as the one at the Whipple Observatory, said Ong of UCLA.

Cherenkov, which refers to a specific form of electromagnetic radiation, is named for Russian scientist Pavel Cherenkov, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner.

The gamma-ray observatory would feature more powerful instruments to study the origin of high-energy cosmic rays and observe the most energetic objects in the universe.

Of the two Arizona options, Hall favors the Meteor Crater site.

“All of the Northern Hemisphere sites have their strengths and are very close in their scientific performance,” Hall said. “We somewhat prefer the Meteor Crater site because of its ease of access.”

It is about 50 minutes east of Flagstaff in Coconino County on the Bar T Bar Ranch.

The other site is on the Yavapai Ranch about 14 miles south of Seligman, more than an hour west of Flagstaff. Both sites are privately owned and are at an elevation of about 5,700 feet above sea level.

The CTA observatory would feature a handful of buildings, including a scientific center, dormitory and visitor center.

Although the observatory would include some short-term, on-site accommodations, approximately 25 scientists and support staff would live in Flagstaff, Winslow or other nearby communities, Hall said.

Clear skies in Ariz.

Hall said Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Commerce Authority have expressed support for the Arizona sites but have not committed any funding.

Larry Dannenfeldt, Coconino County deputy manager, said the county and local governments would try to work with the state to help develop roads, power, water and fiber-optic lines for the site near Meteor Crater.

The observatory would bring high-paying jobs to the Flagstaff area and some tourism to its visitor center, he said.

“It’s something we would very, very much like to have in the region,” Dannenfeldt said. “It would add on to the well-established astronomy sector that is growing up here.”

The observatory could provide a big economic lift for Seligman, which for the past two decades has relied on Route 66 tourism to bolster its small-town economy.

Site development would start next year, and construction would get under way the following year, with completion targeted for 2019.

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