Growing An Astronomy Program at the University

Lee J. Siegel (Originally published 8/25/08) Science news specialist, University of Utah Public Relations

In the last few years, the Department of Physics & Astronomy 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.

Dave Kieda says the 32-inch research-grade reflecting telescope now is being fabricated by DFN Engineering in Boulder, Colo. Observatory construction [started fall 2008] 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.”

With a $450,000 Eccles grant and a matching amount [from the office of David Pershing, the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs], the Department of Physics & Astronomy is joining the third phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), an effort by about 20 research institutions around the world.

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.”

“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.”