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Utah Steps into the Heavens

Aug. 25, 2008 – In its latest step to develop an astronomy program, the University of Utah is joining a major international effort to map the heavens as a way to search for giant planets in other solar systems, study expansion of the universe and probe the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that make up most of the universe.

With a $450,000 grant from the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation and a matching amount from the university, the Department of Physics is providing $900,000 to join the third phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), an effort by about 20 research institutions around the world. SDSS-III started July 15 and extends into 2014.

“This brings to the state of Utah a major astronomical initiative to survey distant galaxies, survey the early universe to uncover the origin of the first galaxies, understand the birth and evolution of our galaxy and discover planets in other solar systems that would have a suitable environment for harboring life,” says Dave Kieda, professor and chairman of physics at the University of Utah.

Joining the survey “boosts the reputation of the department and the university, and brings internationally important astronomers to Utah to collaborate [with U scientists] and to design future instruments together,” he adds. “All faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students at the University of Utah will have access to the data from this survey to pursue research at the forefront of astronomy.”

Growing an Astronomy Program at the U

In the last few years, the Department of Physics has worked to grow an astronomy program with the support of the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation. The department added an astronomy minor program and used an $88,000 Eccles grant to refurbish an observatory atop the South Physics Building.

The foundation also has provided $680,000 for the university to build an $800,000 observatory at 9,000 feet on Frisco Peak west of Milford, Utah. The university now is seeking approvals from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Beaver County.

Kieda says the 32-inch research-grade reflecting telescope now is being fabricated by DFN Engineering in Boulder, Colo. Observatory construction will start this fall, and the telescope’s “first light” is set for September 2009.

Stephen Eccles Denkers, executive director of the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation, says his family is “incredibly excited” to be involved in “elevating the University of Utah to one of the premier physics and astronomy departments.”

Denkers says his mother, sister and cousins are enthusiastic about funding the U’s entry into the Sky Survey in part because they “would love to see more women get into the sciences, into physics and astronomy.”

The $450,000 to match the foundation’s grant comes from the office of David Pershing, the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs.

“Joining a recognized astronomy project like SDSS-III is a stepping stone to a successful astronomy program at the University of Utah,” says Paolo Gondolo, leader of the university’s astronomy initiative and an associate professor of physics. “The wide scope of the SDSS-III program – from planet searches to galactic studies to cosmology – offers ample choices of research topics to faculty and students.”

Surveying the Night Sky

The third Sloan Digital Sky Survey is the latest phase of a project that began with SDSS-I (2000-2005) and continued with SDSS-II (2005-2008).

All three phases use the 2.5-meter diameter telescope at the Apache Peak Observatory in New Mexico. It is equipped with a 125-megapixel camera that can image at one time an area equal to eight times the area of the full moon. It also has a pair of spectrographs that can measure the optical spectra of 640 stars and galaxies at once.

During the past eight years, the Sloan survey has created the largest three-dimensional maps of the structure of the cosmos by making images covering more than one-quarter of the sky, discovering more than 500 supernovae and measuring the distances to almost 1 million galaxies and more than 100,000 quasars, which are incredibly bright, old objects created when hot gas is sucked into supermassive black holes with a mass up to 10 billion times the size of our sun.

Kieda says not only will Utah researchers use SDSS-III measurements in their research, but also will follow up on the Apache Peak telescope’s wide-field observations by using the university’s Frisco Peak telescope to observe interesting stars and galaxies.

Sloan-III: Dark Mysteries, the Galaxy’s Halo and Evolution, and Exoplanets

Unlike the survey’s first two phases, SDSS-III will not focus on making optical images, but will include four projects that are spectrographic. That means “they are going to take light that comes from a star or galaxy, pass it into a high-resolution spectrograph and look at the specific color lines emitted by specific molecules in the star or galaxy,” Kieda says. Then, astronomers will “use those measured colors to determine the distance to the star or galaxy and the processes occurring within those objects.”

Gondolo explained the four programs that are part of SDSS-III:

  • BOSS (Baryon Oscillation Spectrographic Survey) will measure the history of the universe’s expansion with unprecedented precision. That will permit scientists to test theories about the mysterious “dark energy” believed to make up 73 percent of the universe (along with 4 percent visible matter and 23 percent yet-unidentified “dark matter”). Dark energy is a yet-unknown force that helps the universe expand.
  • SEGUE-2 (second Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration), continues an earlier survey in “mapping the stars of our galactic halo, the roughly spherical region with few stars surrounding the populous galactic disk,” Gondolo says. He hopes recent discoveries of streams of stars in the galactic halo will lead to the discovery of their expected dark matter counterparts. Kieda says the project also will improve understanding of galaxy collisions, during which our Milky Way “ate” or tore apart smaller galaxies, leaving star clusters and even dwarf galaxies in the galactic halo.
  • APOGEE (APO [Apache Peak Observatory] Galactic Evolution Experiment) “measures the abundance of the chemical elements in hundreds of thousands of stars in the Milky Way,” Gondolo says. “These precise measurements will reveal how and when the various chemical elements formed in previous generations of stars.” So it is a way to study stellar evolution in our galaxy. Gondolo plans to examine the data for evidence that some of the first stars may have been “dark stars” powered by dark matter rather than conventional stars powered by nuclear fusion.
  • MARVELS (Multi-object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-area Survey) will search for giant planets around 10,000 stars, particularly around cooler stars where such planets might be habitable even if close to the star. “Besides the scientific implications, this kind of search has repercussions in the way humanity perceives its place in the cosmos,” Gondolo says.

The SDSS-III is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the participating institutions. In addition to the University of Utah, the still-growing list of participating institutions includes the University of Arizona, the Brazilian Participation Group, University of Cambridge, University of Florida, the French Participation Group, the German Participation Group, the Joint Institute for  Nuclear Astrophysics, Johns Hopkins University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, New Mexico State University, New York University, Ohio State University, University of Portsmouth, Princeton University, the Spanish Participation Group, University of Tokyo, University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III web site is

A Sloan news release summarizing SDSS-II and SDSS-III is at: 

The main Sloan Digital Sky Survey web site is at: