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September 3, 1998

Pitt astrophysicists want a piece of South African telescope project

Pitt astrophysicists would love to join their Carnegie Mellon University colleagues in gaining regular access to the South African Large Telescope (SALT).

But Pitt administrators are dubious, citing the project's multi-million dollar price tag.

SALT will be the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere when completed in 2003, offering views of distant galaxies and stars a billion times dimmer than the faintest ones visible to the naked eye.

Unlike CMU, which this summer signed a letter of intent pledging to contribute $6 million (as yet unraised) toward the $20 million project, Pitt has made no commitment to SALT, financially or scientifically.

"We're hoping Pitt's investment would total $3-4 million over the next five years," said Frank Tabakin, chairperson of the physics and astronomy department.

How does Tabakin plan to pitch the idea to Pitt administrators? "I guess I would say, 'very carefully,'" he replied with a laugh. "I'm planning to go through the proper channels, presenting material on the project to [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] Dean Cooper and, through him, to the provost and hopefully to the chancellor." Carnegie Mellon's president, Jared Cohon, and provost, Paul Christiano — together with CMU scientists and government officials from South Africa — spoke at a July 10 news conference announcing CMU's participation in the telescope project. Tabakin and other Pitt professors also attended.

Tabakin's boss, Dean N. John Cooper, said he was invited but could not attend because of a prior commitment.

"I am aware of the project and in a broad sense I support both investment in major research opportunities and collaborative efforts," Cooper said. "But I have had no chance yet to decide whether I would want to support an investment of that dramatic size in that particular project. I'm not sure what impact it would have on our educational and research missions." Provost James Maher, to whom Cooper reports, was even less encouraging.

"We don't have any plans at this point of getting involved in that project," Maher said.

SALT will be built in rural country near Sutherland, South Africa, 230 miles northeast of Cape Town. South African officials say they hope to begin construction by the end of March 1999.

According to Tabakin, assured time on a large telescope south of the Equator would literally open half of the sky for Pitt astrophysicists — a richly interesting half, given his department's emphasis on cosmology.

The two nearest galaxies outside of the Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, can be seen from Earth only from the Southern Hemisphere. By observing those galaxies, scientists can learn more about the origin and nature of the universe, Tabakin explained.

Observations from ground-based telescopes such as SALT also can provide optical confirmation of theories based on observations from radiotelescopes and space-based telescopes, he noted.

CMU's young astrophysics department and Pitt's longer established physics and astronomy department already teach advanced graduate classes jointly and together host seminars and colloquia, among other collaborations.

"Joining with Carnegie Mellon on the SALT project would immediately make Pittsburgh an international center for astrophysics," Tabakin said.

Currently, Pitt gets access to the world's largest telescopes only when faculty are awarded grants funding such access, and when telescope proprietors allow it, Tabakin said.

"George Gatewood gets observation time on the Keck Telescopes [on Hawaii's Mauna Kea], for example, and Cyril Hazard is active at a telescope in Australia, but that's all done on a project-by-project basis," he said. Gatewood and Hazard are faculty members in Pitt's department.

"The next time you need access, you have to go through the process all over again. But if you're part of a founding group of partners in a project like SALT, you get a certain fraction of observation time, depending on your financial contribution." Another advantage of SALT is its cost-effectiveness, Tabakin maintains. In contrast to the Keck telescopes and others that can track stars across the sky all night as the Earth rotates, SALT's 90-ton primary mirror will remain stationary. A 4.5 ton tracking mirror atop the telescope will move instead, keeping objects in focus for an hour or two — long enough for most observations, astrophysicists say.

"Because of this special design, which is basically a clone of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope [operated in Texas by Penn State], the South African telescope will cost only about one-fifth of an equivalent telescope with a traditional design," Tabakin said.

Even at that price, Tabakin knows, SALT could irritate some old wounds at Pitt because of associations between multi-million-dollar telescopes and the abortive chancellorship of J. Dennis O'Connor.

O'Connor favored investing $8 million in University funds in the Magellan telescope in Chile. The Magellan project, he argued, represented "a once-in-a-lifetime possibility for this University to stay in the forefront of what will become the science of the next millennium: cosmology." Faculty in physics and astronomy, including the department's then-chairperson (and current Pitt Provost) James Maher, also lobbied for University participation in the Magellan project.

But others here, including some influential Pitt trustees, said the money would be better spent on down-to-earth projects like upgrading classrooms, labs, student residence halls and recreation facilities.

In 1994, trustees tentatively approved funding for the Magellan project, stipulating that $5 million would have to come from private gifts donated specifically for that project and $3 million from the Chancellor's Discretionary Fund.

But support among Pitt's administration for the Magellan project disappeared when O'Connor did, in 1995.

If Pitt passes on its current opportunity to partner in SALT, the University might still be able to join the project years down the road, Tabakin acknowledged. "We would come in as a junior partner, but it would still be better than nothing," he said.

"We have to operate within the limitations of the kind of university we are," Tabakin noted. "CMU is a private, well-funded and well-endowed university, and they're not subject to the same financial pressures that we are. I understand that. But it would be very much preferable for my department if Pitt came in as a founding partner.

"If I feel a sense of urgency, it's being set by the fact that the CMU people are moving very fast on this. If we're going to do this [telescope project] in partnership with them — which appeals to us very much — this is kind of a one-time thing."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 1

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