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U Re-enlists with Astronomy Project

University of Utah astronomers will participate in a six-year project to study the formation of our Milky Way galaxy; map stars, gas and supermassive black holes in 10,000 neighbor galaxies; and chart 1 million galaxies and quasars to learn about mysterious “dark energy” that makes the universe expand.

Five years after joining the third phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, or SDSS-III, Utah’s largest research university is signing up for the fourth phase of the international effort to map the heavens – thanks to a $350,000 “challenge grant” from the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation and a matching $350,000 from the university.

The sky survey’s first phase began in 2000. The University of Utah joined the six-year third phase in 2008 with a $450,000 donation from the Eccles foundation and university match. SDSS-IV begins in July 2014 and will operate until mid-2020.

Membership in the Sloan survey’s fourth phase is “a critical extension and expansion of the success achieved by the U’s astronomy program as a participant in SDSS-III,” says Michael Hardman, interim senior vice president for academic affairs.

“We are eager to continue our support for astronomy at the University of Utah,” says Stephen Eccles Denkers, executive director of the Willard L. Eccles Charitable Foundation.

Denkers noted that his family foundation’s support for University of Utah participation in the Sloan survey’s third phase “has been a key pillar of the establishment of the astronomy program at the university, and has led to multiple, high-profile results in research, education, outreach and external funding.”

Indeed, the university’s $900,000 participation since 2008 in the third Sloan survey attracted another $1.7 million in grants for faculty members doing research for the survey, says Dave Kieda, chair of physics and astronomy.

Adam Bolton and Kyle Dawson – both assistant professors of physics and astronomy – will serve as the U’s lead scientists in the fourth Sloan survey.

More than 30 research institutions will participate in SDSS-IV. The Sloan surveys use the 2.5-meter-diameter telescope at Apache Point Observatory at Sunspot, N.M.

That telescope “is the world’s most powerful facility for observing large volumes of space with the technique of spectroscopy,” Bolton says. “This technique breaks the light from stars and galaxies into its component wavelengths, allowing scientists to measure unique signatures of their orbital motions and chemical ingredients.”
The University of Utah signed and finalized a memorandum of understanding June 18 with the Seattle-based Astrophysical Research Consortium, which operates the Sloan surveys and hopes to raise $59 million for the survey’s fourth phase.

The consortium normally would charge the university $1.05 million to buy into SDSS-IV, but the price was reduced to $700,000 if the university fronted the full amount by June 30, which it did. The Eccles foundation will pay its $350,000 share to the university in installments of $120,000 this year and 2014, and $110,000 in 2015.

The university’s Center for High Performance Computing will host a massive archive of data collected by the fourth Sloan survey.

Read the full press release here.

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