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Astronomy Department Seeks

By Michael T. Jalkut

Twenty-four hours, door-to-door. That's been a frequent commute during the past five years for Professor of Astronomy Robert P. Kirshner '70 as he attempts to obtain a world-class research telescope in Chile for Harvard's use.

Kirshner, who is chair of the Astronomy Department, has been trying to raise money to purchase a 20 percent share in the twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes being built at The Carnegie Foundation's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Currently Harvard does not own a research telescope, Kirshner says, so members of the astronomy department cannot reserve as much time on major telescopes as they need. The new twin telescopes, the first of which is scheduled to be functional in 1998, should give researchers the data to help map the distribution of galaxies and look at the evolution of the Universe.

The University will not fund the project directly, but the administration has given Kirshner permission to seek donors to raise the $13.7 million. The money will give Harvard a one-fifth share in the Magellan project, collaborating with the University of Arizona, MIT and the University of Michigan.

The Telescope

Right now, all that sits on the Magellan site 8,000 feet high in the arid mountains of Chile are a couple of foundations and one pod-shaped skeleton.

But when the telescope is completed, it will be one of the most useful astronomical instruments in the world, according to Kirshner. He says the first mirror is cast and ready to be ground and polished at the University of Arizona.

Only a few observatories have mirrors over 6.5 meters, and Magellan's inclusion of two identical mirrors enhances its field of view, resolving power and total viewing time. Presently, the largest observatory in the world is the 10-meter Keck twin telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Kirshner says that despite the publicity surrounding the success of the Hubble Space Telescope, ground-based instruments still have several advantages.

"For one, [the Magellan] is five times bigger than the Hubble so it will have a much larger field of view," Kirshner says. "Plus there are certain wavelengths the Hubble can't detect."

He adds that the Magellan will be able to resolve galaxies four billion light-years away, effectively letting astronomers see the Universe that many years ago.

"The Universe used to be very smooth, and we're looking for when it started to clump up and become more irregular," Kirshner says.

The telescope might also lead to clues on the composition of the "dark matter," or the mysterious 90 percent of the Universe's mass that astronomers say remains unseen.

A 325-Year Celestial Tradition

In 1670 an astronomer from Harvard, then a tiny school in the wilderness of the New World, sent his observations of what would later be called Halley's comet to Isaac Newton. Newton used this data from Harvard in his Principia, beginning a long tradition of astronomical excellence at the New England school, including the attendance of Edwin Hubble, the most famous astronomer of the 20th century.

Now, Kirshner says that the celestial prowess in "one of the top few astronomy departments in the country" is threatened because graduate students and other members of the departments cannot book enough time on major research telescopes for their projects.

Senior Lecturer on Astronomy David Latham says that the Magellan telescope will be "a shot in the arm for the Astronomy Department."

"If it has the right instrument on it, then I'll use it," he says. "It will be very useful for many people in the department."

Harvard does have a stake in telescopes operated by the Smithsonian Institution, but Kirshner and Latham say that these telescopes do not provide enough opportunity for research, in quantity or in quality.

With the Magellan observatory, Harvard astronomers would have much higher priority than they can get now with other similar instruments.

Harvard's pursuit of a South American observatory began in 1986 when the Astonomy Department recognized the construction of a Harvard-affiliated telescope in South America as its highest priority.

In 1990 members of the department began fundraising for a telescope in partnership with Cambridge University, but then the British school dropped out and the alliance with Carnegie was formed instead.

The Yellow Brick Road

Money for the new telescope has not come easily. The University does not fund large research projects like this one directly, according to Joe Wrinn, the director of the Harvard News Office.

Kirshner says the responsibility for fundraising for projects like these often lie with the faculty members.

"The dean doesn't sit on a pool of money and aim the spigot in [whichever] direction asks for it," Kirshner says. "A lot of these things happen because faculty members go out and get the money."

Kirshner has been chiefly responsible for raising $9 million over the past five years, or about 70 percent of the total $13.7 million required. The observatory will cost $67 million overall.

His passport, stamped dozens of times, gives an idea of the number of airline flights and amount of legwork that have gone into the project.

"It's not as easy as you think; I'm asking for a lot of money," he jokes.

But Kirshner says that meeting alumni "who care about the place" makes all the work rewarding.

Latham says that the response to Kirshner's fundraising shows the merit of the Magellan project and Kirshner's enthusiasm for it.

"If Captain K can get a telescope with other people's money, you know it's worth it," Latham says. "Donors are always very discriminating.

Kirshner says he has made many trips to Chile to show the site to possible benefactors.

Earlier in the spring, Kirshner had to leave for Chile for one week, leaving the lectures for his Core class Science A-35, "Matter in the Universe," to the head TF.

"I hate to leave, but I missed two out of 26 lectures," Kirshner says. "I suspect that's a better attendence record than most of the students."

Campanas Cabanas

Although the Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory rests on an arid, uninhabited mountain range 100 miles away from a city, astronomers find it an ideal spot to set up camp.

Still air, fair weather and the 8,000 foot elevation provide perfect conditions for viewing the heavens.

Also, the scientists working at the string of observatories there have made the site into "a bit of a resort" according to Kirshner.

"There is only one road there and it is pleasant, in a way. The buildings are very comfortable, like a little hotel," he says.

He jokes that because the seasons are opposite, Harvard astronomers might head down to a Chilean summer during a Boston winter.

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