Steward Observatory celebrates 100 years of establishment

Jesus Barrera | The Daily Wildcat

A look at the Steward Observatory on Aug. 5. Steward is celebrating 100 years of establishment this year.

This year marks 100 years since Steward Observatory was officially established, after the tireless efforts of Andrew Ellicott Douglass.

In its century, Steward has been part of major astronomical finds, hosted notable astronomers and expanded to include both the department of astronomy and the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab.

Steward began when Douglass came to the UA as a professor of astronomy, physics and geography. Douglass began looking for funding for a research-class telescope to be built at the UA with the goal of having an observatory capable of making and sharing astronomical discoveries.

Douglass was able to secure the funds from a $60,000 anonymous donation given to the UA, “to be used to buy a telescope of huge size,” according to a 1916 article in the Arizona Daily Star. The donation, made by Oracle resident Lavinia Steward, allowed for construction of the observatory to begin.

A state-of-the-art, 36-inch telescope was installed in 1922 and the observatory was formally dedicated on April 23, 1923 in honor of Lavinia’s husband, Henry B. Steward. The completion of the observatory launched the UA into its position as a research university, and has kept the title strong as the department of astronomy expanded to radio and X-ray astronomy, using space-based telescopes and the Mirror Lab, which produced lenses for telescopes such as the Giant Magellan Telescope.

As Tucson and the campus continued to grow, the usefulness of the original Steward 36-inch telescope became increasingly difficult due to poor seeing conditions.

In 1963, the telescope was relocated to Kitt Peak National Observatory, where it is still in use today by the UA’s Spacewatch project.

A 21-inch reflecting telescope replaced the original Steward telescope in 1964, which was installed for use by students and for public lectures.

Even after being relocated, though, Steward astronomers continued to use the telescope. In 1969, the 36-inch telescope was used by Steward astronomers, Mike Disney, John Cocke and Don Taylor to discover the optic pulsar in the center of the Crab Nebula.

Throughout the years, Steward and it’s astronomers continued to make significant astronomical finds. Just this year in late July, Steward Observatory helped in the discovery of the “Eye of Horus,” a gravitational lensing system.

This occurs when light from a galaxy is bent by the gravitational pull of another galaxy in the foreground, causing an effect called gravitational lensing. The “Eye of Horus” is capable of having one foreground galaxy lens multiple galaxies, an event that is extremely rare.

In October 2015, Steward Observatory astronomer Kevin Wagner discovered a two-arm spiral structure surrounding a young star, which is an ultra-rare find. Wagner, who is a graduate student in the department of astronomy, also found a planet with three suns early last month.

Just ten years ago, two Steward astronomers, Doug Clowe and Dennis Zaritsky, were part of a team which first found direct evidence of dark matter.

File Photo | The Daily Wildcat

One of several machines used by researchers at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab to polish telescope mirrors. Steward branched out to include the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab, which has made mirrors for several telescopes over the years.

Steward’s astronomers have also taken time from their life of watching the skies to host public lecture series. In 1998, a Steward Observatory astronomer, Neville Woolf, conducted a lecture series on the possible existence on life on other planets.

Over the past 88 years, the observatory has given free lectures to the public as well as viewings on the telescope. Occasionally, the lectures involved tours of the many facilities operated by the Steward Observatory.

In 1996, as part of Steward’s public evening series, a talk by John M. Hill titled “The Large Binocular Telescope,” gave a tour of the mirror lab which allowed the public to see the mold for the 8.4 meter mirror for the LBT.

The first mirror for the LBT was finished in September 1997 and the telescope saw its first light in 2005 as part of the Mount Graham International Observatory.

The Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab is one of the few facilities in the world that can cast mirrors at such a scale. Because of this, mirrors cast at the mirror lab end up all over the the globe. Steward mirrors can be found in New Mexico at the Apache Point Observatory, Magellan 1 and 2 in Chile and even in parts of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is currently under construction in Chile.

A proposed telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, is composed of seven mirrors—all of which are being produced at the UA. Because of its size, it will be able to focus six times and amount of light of the current largest telescope.

Besides having mirrors all around the world, Steward also operates and manages five telescopes around Arizona, one in New Mexico, one in Hawaii and one in Chile.

MGIO is one of five mountaintop locations in Arizona and is located northeast of Tucson. Mt. Graham is home to three telescopes—the LBT, the Vatican Advanced Technology telescope, which had its mirrors made by Steward, and the Submillimeter Telescope, which is a radio telescope.

The VATT was able to discover a black hole in another galaxy last year thanks to its superior optic quality, and has been used for imaging and measuring electromagnetic radiation.

The United Kingdom Infra-red Telescope is located in Mauna Kea and is a 3.8-meter infrared telescope, whose primary daily operations fall under the responsibility of Steward Observatory.

The UA is partners with the University of Hawaii and the Lockheed-Martin Corporation, and works to keep the telescope in operation.

When Douglass began the endeavor of opening an observatory at the UA, he hoped to have an institution that could provide scientific results, expand human knowledge and to share the knowledge with the world.

In his speech at the dedication ceremony of Steward Observatory, Douglass said, “In this Observatory, I sincerely hope and expect that the boundaries of human knowledge will be advanced along astronomical lines."Astronomy was the first science developed by our primitive ancestors thousands of years ago because it measured time.Performing that same function, it has played a vast part in human history, and today it is telling us facts, forever wonderful, about the size of our universe; perhaps tomorrow it will give us practical help in showing us how to predict climatic conditions in the future.”

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