Astronomy Advances in Utah

As department chair David Kieda remarked, nobody will graduate from the University of Utah’s Department of Physics this year.

Instead, young scientists marching along the aisle at commencement will graduate from the just-renamed Department of Physics and Astronomy. Signaling a strong commitment to the starry science, the State Board of Regents approved the name change during its March 26-27 meeting at Dixie State College, St. George.

A March 18 memorandum to the board from William A. Sederburg, Utah’s commissioner of higher education, said the new name would “more accurately reflect the nature of the research and teaching that occurs at the University of Utah.” For the past 20 years, the U. has been establishing the foundation for the astronomy program, he wrote.

“Statewide, the new department name will draw attention to the first (and only) public university astronomy program in the state of Utah.” Only Brigham Young University, Provo, has another Department of Physics and Astronomy; it is an undergraduate program in astronomy with an emphasis on secondary school teaching with faculty-led research, according to Sederburg.

He added that the department won’t change the official degree names presently offered by the Physics department. “The department does anticipate starting the formal process for approval of an undergraduate and graduate astronomy degree program in the 2009-10 academic year.”

Kieda told Nightly News that in 1999-2000, the Willard L. Eccles Foundation funded a junior-level astronomy program in the physics department. A course offered in the spring, starting in 2001, allows students to use the observatory atop the South Physics Building.

Kieda developed upper-level courses on stellar astrophysics and cosmology.

Next, the department proposed developing an astronomy minor, which was approved in 2006. Minors in astronomy could take the three courses plus two in physics. This fall will see the graduation of the first U. of U. student with an astronomy minor.

In July 2006, the Eccles Foundation donated $600,000 to the university to build an observatory with a 32-inch diameter telescope. The powerful instrument was ordered in 2007 and is to be installed this summer on Frisco Peak, which is northwest of Milford, Beaver County. The location, at 11,000 feet elevation, with dry air far from serious light pollution, should afford excellent telescope conditions. Chief of the project is Wayne Springer, an associate professor.

“The university has been getting a stronger and stronger interest in astronomy,” Kieda said. The U. will be hiring six astronomers, on track for tenure. The first two arrived this spring. Offers were recently made to two others.

Besides the name change, the Board of Regents is “anticipating that we will come up with a proposal for a major [in astronomy] as well as a master’s degree and a PhD.,” he added. The proposal could come in two years.

In an optical astronomy experiment, specialized telescopes are being installed at Star Base-Utah, at Tooele County’s Bonneville SeaBase. Headed by Assistant Professor Stephan LeBohec, the program aims to measure and map the surfaces of stars by tracking fluctuations in starlight, observed by two telescopes working in tandem in an interferometry system.

What’s the significance of the name change?

“The major significance is that we’re having a new science program that’s available to us in the state of Utah,” Kieda said. “And also we’re creating new facilities throughout the state to support that research.”

These steps, combined with non-optical astronomy projects carried on by the U. Department of Physics and Astronomy, promise to make Utah one of the top sites in the United States for this noble science.

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