CU-Boulder wins bid to host National Solar Observatory headquarters

By Staff

The Sun
The University of Colorado Boulder has been selected to host the headquarters for the National Solar Observatory (NSO), the nation’s leading scientific research program in ground-based solar astronomy.

The NSO provides scientists access to the world’s largest collection of optical and infrared solar telescopes and auxiliary instruments to observe the sun in detail. NSO scientists conduct theoretical and observational research focused on understanding the underlying causes of solar variability and its impact on the Earth and the Earth’s space environment.

NSO is operated under the auspices of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) on behalf of the National Science Foundation, with key observing facilities in New Mexico and Arizona, and is currently leading the effort to build the 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, a technological innovation scheduled to begin observations from Haleakala on Hawaii’s Maui island in 2016.

In April 2011, CU-Boulder was selected as one of two finalists along with the University of Alabama in Huntsville. CU-Boulder partnered with the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Hawaii on the winning bid and will implement a collaborative graduate education program that will enhance the role of NSO in research and education on a national level.

“We are delighted to be named host of the National Solar Observatory, which is of great importance to the nation and world in terms of better understanding solar physics and space weather,” said CU-Boulder Provost Russell Moore, who submitted the proposal on behalf of the university. “Landing this vital research center is a testimony to the strength of CU-Boulder’s world-class faculty in space science and solar research, the support of the city of Boulder’s leadership, and the vital assistance and support of Congressmen Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis and U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennett.”

Stein Sture, vice chancellor for research at CU-Boulder, echoed Moore, saying that the NSO’s presence will benefit CU’s research and teaching mission in dynamic ways.

“As one of the world’s leading institutions in solar research, we now will have even greater access to ground-based observing facilities and will be able to continue to provide unrivaled opportunities for our students and research scientists alike,” Sture said.

The NSO’s mission is to advance knowledge of the sun both as an astronomical object and as the dominant external influence on Earth by providing forefront observational opportunities to the research community. The mission includes the operation of cutting-edge facilities and the continued development of advanced instrumentation both in-house and through partnerships, as well as conducting solar research and educational and public outreach, said Moore.

NSO has offices and ground-based observing facilities at Kitt Peak, Ariz., and Sacramento Peak, N.M., which will cease operations when the new Advanced Technology Solar Telescope is completed. The new CU-Boulder headquarters for NSO will be the primary science, instrument development and data analysis site for the new solar telescope.

“The educational and collaborative opportunities that will be enabled by the relocation of the NSO headquarters in Boulder are exceptional,” said Associate Professor Mark Rast of CU-Boulder’s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and leader of the team that wrote the proposal to AURA. “The sun is the only star close enough to allow detailed observations of magnetic and dynamical processes central to many phenomena in the universe. The NSO’s unique capabilities will add to and augment ongoing efforts in Boulder, ranging from stellar astrophysics and the space environments of extra-solar planets to space weather prediction here on Earth. We are very excited by the possibilities, and thrilled that Boulder was chosen as host.”

Several CU-Boulder departments were involved in the NSO headquarters bid: the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, the Department of Physics and the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. The quality of students in these departments was likely a significant consideration in the decision to bring the NSO headquarters to Boulder, and major research opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students will accompany the NSO move, particularly once the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope comes on line, Rast said.

“Students will have the opportunity to participate in discovery science using a telescope with about 10 times better spatial resolution than the best current space-borne solar imagers,” Rast said.

In addition to the university, Colorado and Boulder offer a host of national laboratories as potential collaborators with the NSO. Other laboratories and centers in Colorado expected to participate and benefit include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

“This is extremely exciting for the university, the state of Colorado and solar scientists around the world,” said LASP Director Dan Baker, an internationally known expert in space physics and space weather. “CU-Boulder researchers have been studying the sun for more than 50 years. Our continued leadership in this area is a tremendous asset for our students. Solar research represents a branch of science that is crucial for our nation’s future. The sun is a driver of Earth’s weather and climate and its extreme behavior can have immense economic and societal consequences through its impact on the space environment.”

The consolidation of NSO into a single site on CU-Boulder’s East Campus is expected to result in jobs for up to 70 scientists, engineers and staff with an annual payroll of roughly $20 million. The new facility will bolster an already formidable high-tech and aerospace industry in the state. Colorado is third behind California and Washington, D.C., in aerospace industry presence.

“The NSO is an excellent addition to the dynamic research and entrepreneurial activity in Boulder,” said Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam. “The federal labs and nationally recognized CU-Boulder, combined with an aggressive environment for financing high-tech startups, have made Boulder a hot spot nationally for its intellectual capital and business environment. We are delighted to welcome the NSO to our vibrant community.”