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Lowell Observatory’s Expanding Universe

It’s not only with the new Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT) that operations are getting bigger at Lowell Observatory. They’ve also been hiring new staff, revamping the website and expanding outreach activities. A lot of the money to fund the upswing in research activity at the observatory has come through the hard work of its research astronomers, explains Development Manager Rusty Tweed. The funding that those astronomers bring in via research grants form a crucial part of the observatory’s budget. Meanwhile, expansion in other areas at Lowell has come from a greater commitment to fundraising from a variety of sources.

As it has for many years, much of Lowell’s research funding comes from federal sources, particularly NASA. That means Lowell’s researchers regularly spend a lot of time crafting grant proposals to beat out the competition – something they’ve done particularly well recently. Examples of current federally funded projects include involvements with the Hubble Space Telescope, the SOFIA airborne observatory and Kepler missions, as well as the New Horizons spacecraft rendezvous with Pluto in 2015. Raising money this way has become especially important since other observatory funds have been required to ensure the successful completion of the DCT. An important part of those other funds come from the Percival Lowell Trust, a portfolio of private investments managed by the trustee with the sole purpose of helping to support the observatory.

So when the observatory decided to make three new research hires recently, a key ingredient was to select astronomers working in cutting edge areas with a track record of successfully securing financial support for their work. One of those three new Ph.D. astronomers is Evgenya Shkolnik, who specializes in studying exoplanets (i.e. planets orbiting around stars located outside our own solar system), a hot topic. Kevin Covey recently arrived to study the life cycle of stars and exoplanets, while new hire Gerard van Belle specializes in measuring the rotation speeds of stars using their shape, size and temperature and will be using the Naval Optical Interferometer. That’s the large piece of equipment that occupies several acres out on Anderson Mesa, south of town. For the last 15 years, known as the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI), it has finally outgrown it’s “prototype” designation, has been renamed NOI and is now receiving regular funding. The Navy is now looking to expand the array and is considering putting extra telescopes on it.

Although the new astronomer hires have to some extent been balanced by recent staff retirements, those retirees often maintain an active presence. With the passion Lowell astronomers feel for their work, it seems that they find it hard to hang up their boots. Several retirees still come in to Lowell fairly regularly to continue with research, albeit at a more relaxed pace – but in one or two cases, on a daily basis. Their continued “sharing of institutional knowledge is incredibly valuable,” said Tweed.

The observatory has been making a big push with visitor and outreach activity too. Major add-ons to their advertising campaign this year have been two (unlit) billboards, one on I-17 north of Anthem and one by Winslow on I-40 heading west. Tom Vitron, Lowell’s media and communications coordinator, says that this kind of activity has helped maintain visitor numbers, with an anticipated 74,000 expected to have passed through the doors by year’s end, compared with 72,247 in 2010. Membership in the Friends of Lowell program is around 2,300 this year so far, up about seven percent from last year and they have managed to retain many of those members too, says Vitron. And while visitation generates a fairly small part of the overall operating budget, the Friends program is a particularly valued income stream because it represents a source of money not already earmarked for specific projects. Other recent visitor additions include two new science walks explaining the galaxy and the universe, as well as expanding opportunities for the “behind the scenes” experience already offered to astronomy clubs; plans are even being drawn for a camp for middle and high schoolers next summer.

Hired as the new deputy director for advancement a little over a year ago, Chuck Wendt has been tasked with increasing development funding and charitable giving, as well as introducing new marketing, advertising and educational campaigns. One of his first innovations is to be a new web feature, “Uncle Percy’s Adventures in Space.” Aimed at kids, it is based on an animated characterization of the observatory’s founder Percival Lowell and a fictional female droid assistant, Miss Kitty. Starting in the New Year, the cartoon characters will explore the solar system in 11 episodes intended to both entertain and educate. The observatory is considering a possible partnership with a media outlet to monetize the series. The website itself has been given a facelift by Nancy Riccio at Plateau MediaWorks. The observatory has also recently been interviewing candidates for a new deputy director for operations. The successful applicant will have a large brief – financial planning, overseeing campus operations, running the business office, managing human resources, publishing annual budgets, monitoring grants and dealing with the numerous compliance issues that are required for all the observatory’s federally funded grants.

In the immediate future, Lowell Observatory will be open to visitors more often. Staff members expect the week between Christmas and New Year to be particularly busy, with special programs including The Star of Bethlehem (an astronomical interpretation of the Star of Bethlehem), as well as opportunities to view the planet Jupiter through the historic Clark telescope. In the New Year, the School’s Out Kids Are Free program will run on holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day, during which all visitor center activities will be geared toward kids.

The big challenge over the next few years will be to keep research grant money coming onto Lowell’s campus. Grants and contracts (mostly federal) currently support 44 percent of the observatory’s overall operating budget. With icy winds sweeping through federal research programs, income streams will likely need to diversify to keep on financial track. One option is “geek philanthropy” – involving private and corporate sponsors with a passion for high tech research helping to fund astronomy projects – something with which outfits like the Keck Observatory in California have done well. The much-publicized collaboration for the new telescope with the Discovery Channel, bolstered recently by a new agreement with Boston University to bring in an extra $10 million over the next 10 years, is one example of this new approach. For the foreseeable future at least, it seems that the Lowell’s universe is indeed expanding. FBN

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