March 1, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 11

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    University study group forms to consider education options for observatory’s future mission

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Yerkes Observatory

    The Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics has formed the Yerkes Study Group to explore the best use of Yerkes Observatory as a site for a regional center for science education.

    The group will report its activities to concerned citizen groups in the area and is “very interested in obtaining input at all stages of the project,” said study group Chair Richard Kron, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and the College.

    The study group, which had its first meeting Friday, Feb. 9, will meet approximately twice a month. Under discussion are the kinds of programs that would be most promising for the facility to provide, what the most important needs are in science education, and what appears to be sustainable after the University winds down its involvement at the site, said Kron, a former Yerkes Observatory Director.

    Yerkes Observatory today is valued in large measure for its contributions to the history of astronomy and for the ornate architecture of the building and its handsomely landscaped grounds. The observatory contains what was one of the great scientific instruments of the late Victorian Age, a 40-inch refracting telescope. For a few years the telescope was the largest in the world. Larger telescopes cannot be efficiently built with the same technology, and so it remains the largest refracting or lens-based telescope in the world. Much larger mirror-based reflecting telescopes have been the standard in astronomy for many decades.

    For several years, the University has contributed to the operation of the Apache Point Observatory in southern New Mexico, a site with significantly better atmospheric conditions for observations, and significantly larger and more advanced telescopes. The Yerkes site is no longer competitive for observational research programs, although it continues to provide valuable laboratory facilities for instrument design and construction, Kron said. The Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics plans to redirect its resources accordingly.

    The faculty has determined that the observatory and telescope can and should make a major contribution as a center for outreach and public education. The nearly 80 acres of land surrounding the observatory is far more than needed to support its future educational mission, however. As a result, the University has announced its intent to sell some of that property for appropriate use, and to apply the funds obtained from the sale of the acreage to support future research in astronomy and astrophysics and also support the observatory’s future use for education.

    Last year a proposal to develop 45 acres of land near the observatory in an arrangement that would have preserved the observatory and its telescopes as an education center for astronomy was opposed by local residents in a series of public hearings. The Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics formed the new study group in part to address local concerns.

    The study group already has begun to consider various options for Yerkes activities, including informal programs for the public, direct support of school activities and professional development workshops for teachers. Other questions under discussion include geographic scope, whether Yerkes can play a role in meeting the needs of disadvantaged groups, and whether the observatory should focus on astronomy and using telescopes, or include a broader range of science and activities.

    The current study also will consider the impact on the observatory’s proposed future educational mission of various options for using the property surrounding the observatory.

    In addition to Kron, the study group consists of John Anderson, Anderson Enterprises LLC; Marge Bardeen, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; Bill Duncan, Aurora University; Lucy Fortson, Adler Planetarium; Harold Friestad, Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy; Jim Gee, Yerkes Observatory; Jim Lattis, University of Wisconsin at Madison; Ted Parge, Aurora University; and Don York, the Horace B. Horton Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics and the College.

    A Web site, which will be located at http://yerkes.uchicago.edu/ysg/, is being developed for posting updates and soliciting ideas and comments. The site also will provide contact information for the study group.