Study says future of Arizona astronomy is looking up

NAU observatory
NAU observatory
Many public and group viewing events are held at NAU’s Atmospheric Research Observatory throughout the year.

A new report says that the future of astronomy in Arizona has nowhere to go but up.

Astronomy, planetary and space sciences form a “core strength of Arizona’s economy,” says the recent study.

NAU participated and helped sponsor the study, completed this fall by the Arizona Arts, Sciences and Technology Academy, to help state policymakers recognize the importance of astronomy so they can help protect and grow the industry.

An economic report in the study, led by the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Management, credits research in the cosmos for pumping more than $250 million into Arizona’s economy in 2006.

“The report sheds light on the importance of astronomical and space sciences to Arizona’s future and highlights ways to leverage it,” says Barry Lutz, a professor of physics and astronomy at NAU. “Without such a plan, growth in the field can become piecemeal, which would diminish the impact Arizona has on the national scene.”

To tap the full potential of astronomical research and talent in the state, the Economic Impact of Astronomy, Planetary and Space Science Research in Arizona study suggests implementing a science and technology road map. The road map includes protecting Arizona’s unique research base by encouraging a policy against growing levels of light pollution. It also charts ways to attract new funding.

NAU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy participated in the study, and Stan Lindstedt, a Regent’s professor in biological sciences and then associate dean for research in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, served on its Project Planning and Oversight Committee. Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory also provided leadership.

Lutz says bringing astronomy’s potential to light will help secure NAU’s “well-deserved reputation for substantive research in astronomy and planetary science, its funding for research and for graduate student training, and its leadership role in preparing future astronomers to enter the workforce.”

NAU is leading research on how the early solar system formed. Projects include searches for inner disk objects near Pluto, and analyzing impact craters and ice on Mars and icy dwarf planets. Other studies focus on star parameters and possible other planetary systems in the galaxy and the significance of colors in Kuiper Belt objects. NAU also is collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey on reconstructing lunar surface data to help NASA prepare for upcoming lunar missions.

The university employs five astronomers and an astronomy technician, and the department brings in more than $650,000 annually in grants and contracts.

“NAU’s graduation rate for astronomy degrees is among the highest in the country,” Lutz says.

Lutz says he hopes the study will result in restricted lighting in areas outside of Coconino County and Tucson. “If light pollution continues to grow unchecked, it eventually and severely will reduce the usefulness Arizona’s observational facilities, and could effectively shut off a substantial portion of research funding that comes into the state.”

Other sponsors of the study include the Arizona Department of Commerce, the University of Arizona, the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the Vatican Observatory.

The full report is online.