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Ten Astronomical Achievements in Arizona

Arizona's 252 million dollar astronomy and planetary science industry boasts some of the most advanced programs in the world and employs over 3,000 people. Scroll down for a partial list of discoveries and achievements that are shaping our knowledge of the universe.

  1. Adaptive Optics in the Large Binocular Telescope (Mount Graham International Observatory)

LBT Ground Breaking Adaptive Optics Technology video, © 2008 Large Binocular Telescope Corporation

The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mount Graham is one of the most power optical telescopes in the world. The telescope is an international collaboration among institutions in the United States, Italy and Germany. The telescope uses two giant 8.4 meter (27.5 foot) mirrors in advanced adaptive technology that sees into deep space more clearly than ever before and returns images three times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. It is currently the best instrument in the world for cancelling the blur of Earth’s atmosphere, as the second mirror is able to change its shape over 1000 times per second to negate any atmospheric distortion. This unrivaled technology has led to previously impossible discoveries about the environments of extrasolar planets (planets outside the solar system) and new insights into how stars are formed.

  1. Leading Roles in Phoenix Mars Lander and OSIRIS-REx (University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory)

Find out the implications of tapping Asteroid 1999 RQ36.The Lunar and Planetary Lab (LPL) at the University of Arizona has been involved in almost every interplanetary spacecraft launched, including numerous missions to Mars, Venus, and into deep space. The celebrated team led the 2008 Phoenix Mission, the first mission to Mars led by a public university in NASA history. Today, UA professor Dante Lauretta is the principal investigator of the $800 million OSIRIS-Rex mission, a joint effort between NASA, the UA LPL, and Lockheed Martin, a pioneer in aerospace technology. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) will collect a sample of surface material from asteroid 1999 RQ36—incidentally, the most dangerous known asteroid in the universe—and return it to earth. This mission is intended to be the first project in an ongoing study of asteroid composition.

  1. First Observation of an Expanding Universe (Lowell Observatory)

In 1912, Lowell Observatory astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher was the first scientist to observe the redshift of the spectral lines of faraway objects, indicating that objects in the universe are moving away from each other. This radical discovery led to the Big Bang Theory. Soon after Slipher made his observations public, this phenomenon was noticed by several other scientists, including Edwin Hubble, who later used the redshift observations to calculate the modern model of the expanding universe. Though Hubble is generally is credited with the discovery, he admits that his work was inspired by Slipher’s early breakthroughs.

  1. Steward Observatory Mirror Lab (University of Arizona)

Dr. Roger Angel of the Steward Mirror Lab explains the process of casting mirrors almost three stories tall!

The facility under the UA football stadium may seem like an unlikely place to create the world’s largest and most advanced telescope mirrors ever made, but the Steward Mirror Lab is internationally known as one of only three labs in the world that produce the giant, lightweight mirrors used in telescopes to collect data from the far reaches of the universe. The lab built the mirrors for the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham, currently the largest telescope in the world. Its latest projects produced two 8.4 meter (27.5 foot) mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescopes II and III, instruments containing seven mirrors and designed to be 10x stronger than the Hubble Space Telescope, scheduled for completion in 2020. The pioneering technologies used to create lightweight mirrors with a honeycomb structure of borosilicated glass were developed by lab director Dr. Roger Angel over 25 years ago. The same technology is now shaping mirrors for solar energy collection

  1. First Indication of Dark Matter (National Optical Astronomical Observatory)

The Mayall Telescope is one of 22 telescopes located on Kitt Peak in Southern Arizona.Dark matter is a hypothetical matter that accounts for a large part of the mass of the universe. Dark matter is virtually invisible, as it does not emit or absorb light. Instead, it is observed by noting the gravitational effects on cosmic bodies, as it adds the mass necessary to keep cosmic structures from flying apart. NOAO's observatory site in Chile provided the first indication of dark matter in the universe with the study of the rotation curves of spiral galaxies! Supporting research came from the 4 meter Mayall Telescope, the largest optical telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO). Scientists awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery used telescopes at these two research sites. KPNO is one of three observatories run by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, a national venture headquartered in Tucson with the goals of research, education, and public outreach. Over 500 scientists visit Kitt Peak each year to conduct groundbreaking research using one of the many telescopes located on the mountain.

  1. World’s First International Dark Sky Community (Flagstaff, AZ)

Stars shine majestically over the San Francisco Peaks in this image by Dan and Cindy Duriscoe.

Clear skies first drew astronomers to Arizona, but dark skies keep them here. Recognizing the excellent stargazing conditions as an economic, scientific, and cultural resource, Flagstaff passed the nation’s first lighting ordinance, a ban on advertising searchlights, in 1958.   The legislation sparked an international movement to protect the night sky through sensible outdoor lighting policies, in which Flagstaff has often taken the lead. In 2001, the city became the world’s first International Dark Sky Community, a designation bestowed by the International Dark-Sky Association for excellence in night sky protection and outreach. Their efforts have paid off—Flagstaff’s observatories  are meccas both for research and public stargazing.

  1. Moon Simulation and Training for the Apollo 11 Mission (Flagstaff Astrogeology Science Center)

Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

In 1963, American astronauts changed the world forever when they walked on the moon. And they trained for that mission near Flagstaff. Unique geologic formations and volcanic craters on the Colorado Plateau were deemed an ideal location to simulate lunar terrain, so the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) established their Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff in 1963. Working with NASA, they blasted new craters to create a training field for the world’s first lunar crew of Buzz Aldrin, Neal Armstrong, and Michael Collins. In past decades, the Astrogeology Science Center has helped map the moon and other planets, research extra-terrestrial geologic processes, and select rover landing sites. Today it helps plan rover routes, analyses data from NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, and even maps the composition and geological processes of planets and satellites, helping build understanding of the character and origins of our solar system.

  1. Discovery of Pluto (Lowell Observatory)

Though Lowell Observatory founder Percival Lowell never found the planet he sought, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh spotted Pluto in 1930 from the very same observatory! Pluto is the only planet discovered in the U.S. For 76 years, it was the ninth planet of our solar system. Though it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006, this object continues to fascinate astronomers, who are still making startling discoveries. Fun facts: Pluto is a binary system, with Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, orbiting a common point in space. Its two other moons, Nix and Hydra, were named in 2006.

  1. Education at the Mars Space Flight Facility (Arizona State University)

Internal workings of the Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer.

Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility is a premiere education center for Mars mineralogy research. The facility acts as NASA mission control for two instruments currently in orbit around Mars: Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) and Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS); and two Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometers, exploring the surface on rovers.

ASU is also the center for the Mars Education program, which facilitates NASA-sponsored educator workshops held throughout the U.S., and offers workshops, field trips and other space-science opportunities for students. One popular program is NASA’s Mars Student Imaging Project, giving students 5th–12th grade nationwide the chance to use data from the THEMIS camera!

  1. Software for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (U.S. Naval Observatory, Flagstaff Station)

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) is one of the most comprehensive surveys in the history of astronomy and provides startling knowledge about the dimensions of the universe. This eight-year project has produced three—dimensional maps containing color images of almost one million galaxies! The U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) Flagstaff Station contributes advanced software and astrometric measurements that determine the actual positions of celestial objects from image data. At one time, astrometrics from Flagstaff Station helped ensure the accuracy of the US Naval Observatory Master Clock, the nation’s most advanced timepiece.