November 11, 2013

University of Missouri to buy stake in Arizona observatory

The $130,000 stake in the WIYN Observatory will buy 15 dedicated nights of research with the Kitt Peak telescope, helping MU attract astronomers and perhaps boost its research ranking.

The University of Missouri plans to buy into an observatory in Arizona, with a goal of doing research it currently can’t perform, university officials said.

The university will buy into the WIYN Observatory, which includes a 3.5-meter telescope atop Kitt Peak National Observatory. The area of the mirror in the Arizona telescope is 75 times larger than the area in a telescope on the MU campus in Columbia, said Eric Hooper, an astronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is the interim director of the WIYN Observatory.

MU’s telescope is used mostly for outreach and public education.

Angela Speck, a professor in MU’s physics and astronomy department, called the Arizona telescope is a “really good research-class telescope. “It means we can go and do things that otherwise we might not get time to do,” Speck said.

MU will buy into the observatory at a 5 percent level, meaning it will have 15 dedicated nights of research on the Arizona telescope, Speck said. The annual payment will be $130,000, with $50,000 from the physics and astronomy department and $80,000 from the provost’s office.

MU officials have set a goal of improving the school’s ranking in the American Association of Universities from 32nd out of 34 public institutions, its current ranking, to No. 28 by 2018. The ranking is based on federal research funding, National Academy of Science members, faculty awards for quality work and faculty citations in high-impact journals.

Speck said the observatory deal could improve the university’s ranking. Plus, not having institutional access to a research telescope has made it more difficult to recruit faculty and researchers to Columbia, she said.

“Now we have something that makes it a little bit easier to get people,” she said.

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