The Willard L. Eccles Foundation has donated $600,000 to the University of Utah for construction of a 32-inch research-class, optical telescope in the southern area of the state.
The project is part of an effort to establish a full-fledged astronomy program at the university and possibly create a high-altitude observatory.
"We're thrilled to be involved in basic research such as searching for the answers to why we are here, how we got to where we are and what's going on with the universe," noted Stephen Denkers, the foundation's executive director. "We're very excited about that."
The robotic reflecting telescope - which can be operated by remote control and programmed to make observations - will be used not only for research and education, but to involve schools, community groups and the public in star-gazing and astronomy camps.
"As part of this effort, we are trying to bring science and technology and an interest in science to rural Utah, to southern Utah, which traditionally have not had as many opportunities as you have in northern Utah," explained Dave Kieda, a professor of physics and director of the Utah High Energy Astrophysics Institute.
Researchers hope to order the telescope in fall 2006, break ground during spring 2007, install the telescope in spring 2008 and begin operation by summer 2008, said Wayne Springer, a U of U associate physics professor spearheading the project.
Scientists hope to identify two or three possible sites for the reflecting telescope by the end of the summer, added Springer. They are seeking sites at 9,500 to 11,000 feet in elevation.
"We are still surveying for sites," said Paolo Gondolo, an associate professor of physics. "For starters, we have five or six we have identified on paper."
Possible sites include Boulder and Parker mountains on the Aquarius Plateau near Loa, Torrey and Boulder; a site near Escalante; Frisco Peak 20 miles west of Milford; and John's Valley near Hatch.
"We are in the beginning stages of site selection and are not limited to those areas. We are considering areas throughout southern Utah," pointed out Springer.
Some potential sites are on national forest land, while others are on Utah state and institutional trust lands. Kieda said the site selection process will respect the unique environmental concerns in southern Utah. None of the potential sites are on lands proposed for wilderness designation.
Physicists hope the project will draw other telescopes to the site. Kieda said Utah was considered for national astronomical facilities in the 1950s, but lost to Kitt Peak in Arizona.
"A very important purpose of this telescope is to be the seed for the site to become an international facility for observations," said Gondolo.
The planned telescope is part of the U of U Department of Physics' astronomy initiative.
The telescope "will greatly enhance the ability of our department to train graduate students in astronomy," pointed out the proposal for the project.
The department has researchers in gamma ray astronomy and cosmic ray physics, and theoreticians who study black holes, dark matter and planet formation, but it lacks observational astronomers, said Gondolo.
Telescopes currently located on the U of U campus are fine for teaching, "but for research, it's not a good site because of the atmospheric distortions, light pollution from the city and a lot of cloudy conditions. That's reason for the new observatory in southern Utah: a dark site, better weather, higher altitude and a more stable atmosphere," concluded Kieda.