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The Economic Impact of Astronomy in Northern Arizona

Nestled in the pines and illuminated by celestial nightlights, Flagstaff has isolated itself from beaming billboards and glowing skyscrapers. This is because since its creation, the city has been a hub for people who see best in the dark: astronomers.

The study of the universe has not only attracted prominent and renowned researchers to the mountain city, but has also led to the construction of several high-profile telescopes in the area, causing astronomy to have a significant economic impact in Flagstaff.

The city is home to Lowell Observatory, the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) and the Naval Research Labs. Truly a pioneer state in the astronomy industry, the first observatory built in Arizona was Lowell Observatory, located at the top of Mars Hill in Flagstaff. Lowell is not only the oldest observatory in the state, but it was actually created 18 years before Arizona even claimed statehood. According to Jeff Hall, the director of the observatory, it is the southwest weather conditions that make Arizona an ideal state for astronomical research.

“In general, Arizona is a very favorable place to do astronomy because of the fairly clear skies, the arid climate and the dry air,” Hall said. “In order to do optical ground-based astronomy, you need not too many clouds, so it’s much more suitable to go to desert locations for observatories than somewhere moister.”

Lowell Observatory is the home of many prestigious landmark discoveries, including the discovery of the planet Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 and co-discovery of the rings of Uranus in 1977, among others.

It is the famous past, current research and four massive telescopes at the observatory that attract nearly 80,000 visitors each year. As a private nonprofit organization, Lowell relies partially on the income of outreach programs. Therefore, the observatory opens its doors to the public extensively to educate people in astronomy.

“There are daily tours on the hour,” Hall said. “In the evenings, we have telescope viewings – including through the 24-inch Clark refractor up here, Lowell’s original telescope. We have a number of private programs tailored for K-12 students. This summer, we’ve been running kids’ camps.”

Hall expects the annual number of visitors to rise significantly with the opening of their newest and most lavish telescope, the Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT).

“[The DCT] will be the fifth largest telescope in the continental U.S. A really state-of-the-art research telescope,” Hall said. “That’s Lowell’s fundamental mission – to do research in astronomy. The DCT will help maintain our research competitiveness for another many decades.”

Not only will the addition help their research, it will also aid in their publicity. As a sponsor, the Discovery Channel has been collecting footage of the creation of the telescope since day one and has compiled it into a television special.

“The exposure from what Discovery wants to do – which is use what we do in their broadcasts – has the potential to greatly increase the public face of Lowell, Flagstaff and Northern Arizona,” he explained.

But while Lowell receives strong financial gains from their community programs, Hall says Lowell’s current operations costs around $7 million, and adding the DCT will add over $2 million per year.

However, after completing an economic impact study for the DCT at Northern Arizona University, Lowell determined that the DCT will impact the Flagstaff economy to the tune of around $570 million over 40 years.

“That’s not only the revenue from tourists, but visiting scientists who come here to use the telescope,” Hall said.

Some of the visiting scientists are researchers from universities like Boston University, the University of Maryland and the University of Toledo who have special interest in the DCT.

“[The universities] pay for access to the telescope and broaden what it does scientifically,” Hall said. “We’re [also] expanding our private sector membership base because our attendance is growing, so all of this revenue will add up to keep things afloat.”

Lowell, which employs 85 people, also has a strong local partnership with another astronomy research hot spot in Flagstaff: the U.S. Naval Observatory, Flagstaff Station (USNO).

Paul Shankland, the director of the USNO, says they have partnerships with many other organizations, but their relationship with Lowell is their strongest.

Lowell Observatory contractually runs one of their telescopes, the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI), built on Anderson Mesa. The Navy hired researchers to operate, maintain and collect data on the high accuracy telescope.

“In that relationship, it’s not just ourselves and Lowell, it is also the Naval Research Labs, which is another Naval institution. So, the three institutions, Naval Research Lab, Naval Observatory and Lowell, work it out to get primary interest out of that telescope,” Shankland said.

While the USNO is government funded, its ability to hire local contractors and architects, as well as attract researchers to the area has had a large impact on Flagstaff’s economy.

“The instrument has been in existence as a full-blown interferometer since 1992 and over the many years the operations of that telescope have infused close to $100 million into the system and has a very strong impact – both directly and indirectly – to the scientific work in the area of Flagstaff and the region,” Shankland said.

In 2010, the Naval Observatory accepted a gift from the California Association for Research in Astronomy: a series of four 1.8-meter telescopes. While each telescope is only half the size of the DCT, the collection is set to spread out over a 180-meter Y-shaped array.

The telescopes are awaiting the final funding process, but according to Shankland, if everything goes as planned, within the next year and a half, the Navy will be able to begin research with the telescopes – a nearly $17 million investment.

The USNO does not rely on public donations and tours as a portion of its income. In fact, the observatory rarely opens its doors for tours. However, it is also more than a research facility. It is the station’s mission to track satellites in orbit through the creation of star maps.

“[Keeping track of satellites] actually has a very important impact in day-to-day well being for just about every citizen throughout the U.S.,” Shankland said.

Overall, despite its inability to be a public education facility, the USNO brings revenue to the city in other ways and appreciates Lowell’s ability to share astronomy with the community.

“Uncle Sam didn’t fund me to have a large staff of public relations people, because it costs a lot of money,” Shankland said. “Instead, we try to do it as a goodwill response to the community. We’re happy to see Lowell’s ability to speak publicly about astronomy.”

Both Shankland and Hall say their facilities are more collaborative than competitive, and each serves a different purpose in the astronomy industry and in Flagstaff.

“Flagstaff is a terrific place for science,” Hall said.


Photo Credit:  “The New Discovery Channel telescope is the fifth largest in the continental U.S. and will keep Lowell Observatory on the cutting edge of research.” Photo courtesy of Len Bright of Lowell Observatory.

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