Soon, CUI students will study the rings of Saturn and the craters of the moon at a permanent astronomical observatory on campus. The observatory is being built with help from a $250,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles, a major funder of scientific educational and research projects.
“This was a magnificent team effort,” says Dr. John Kenney, CUI professor of chemistry and chemical physics. “This grant truly belongs to the university as a whole and to our partner stakeholders. It was unbelievable how it came together. It was supernatural.”
Dr. Barbara Morton, who assists with faculty grants and is CUI’s coordinator of sponsored programs, calls it the university’s “first large faculty-developed grant.”
“Faculty have gotten grants before, but nothing of this size,” she says. “This is a pretty big deal.”
The grant is significant not just for its size— up to $500,000 with matching grants and additional fundraising—but because it comes from the Keck Foundation, a well-known supporter of scientific projects at major universities. Morton says this grant will lend credibility to future CUI faculty grant proposals because “you have to go through a lot to get a Keck grant. People know you’ve been thoroughly vetted.”
The planned campus observatory will consist of three small one-story structures with roll-off roofs through which the telescopes will view the night sky and the sun during daylight hours. The observatory buildings will be clustered behind the present maintenance building, furthest from campus lights.
“We’ll be able to see all the major planets, the moon, asteroids, variable stars,” says adjunct professor Mike Hoffert, who teaches planetary and stellar astronomy at CUI and was instrumental in writing the grant. “Saturn and Jupiter will look sharp and well-defined. You will see the differentiated rings quite easily.”
Hoffert has been taking CUI students to use the 48-inch telescope he and others built from scratch on the Manzanita Indian reservation in rural San Diego County in the 1980s. That telescope, run by the non-profit Tierra Astronomical Institute (TAI) of which Hoffert is president, is dedicated to astronomical research and public outreach. A portion of the grant money will purchase new computer control and drive systems for that large telescope where CUI students already perform advanced research.
“My greatest hope is to leave a legacy in astronomy and have everybody benefit from it,” says Hoffert.
The new observatory on campus is a step toward that dream, and it began thirteen years ago when then-provost Dr. Kurt Krueger and then-president Dr. Jack Preus committed to a bold vision in the sciences—even though CUI had few science faculty and only a very modest scientific equipment inventory at that time. Their dedication led to the enhancement of the biology major and the establishment of a chemistry major in 2003 and a physics major in 2013.
Two and a half years ago, Kenney and Hoffert felt the time was right to do something big in astronomy. They took their vision for a campus observatory to provost Dr. Mary Scott who approved it and referred them to Morton, who began looking for funding.
Keck “looked like the right match,” Morton says, but CUI had never received such a large grant from such a major foundation.
Kenney and Hoffert began writing the technical and scientific aspects of the grant proposal while Morton gathered supporting material about the university and served as the liaison with Keck. Also involved was Russ Genet, a research scholar in residence at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who was recently appointed distinguished visiting professor of astronomy at CUI.
The idea was for an observatory that primarily served CUI students in their astronomical research, but also served local and nationwide communities of students by making the telescopes available for on-site visits and through the Internet. Technology now allows students anywhere to look through the telescopes via the Internet.
And thus a formal proposal was submitted to the W.M. Keck Foundation in August 2013. Last fall Keck sent a team to campus to meet faculty and students and to hear presentations about the proposed observatory
“In early January, Barbara called me and said, ‘We got the grant!’” says Hoffert.
As a result, students soon will be able to conduct scientifically important projects that contribute to the general body of astronomical knowledge. For instance they will study and classify sun spot groups with the new solar telescope. Sun spots are manifestations of the sun’s magnetic field coming up from the center of the sun to its surface. The geometry of these groups is responsible for major solar flares, says Hoffert.
“If we can get scientists more information on the geometry of sun spot groups, they can better predict solar flares,” he says. “In the age of computers, GPS satellites and all the electronics we have today, the more we know about solar flares the better.”
Even before receiving this grant, CUI faculty and students had published research papers based on research trips to several major observatories. The papers added to the astronomy community’s body of knowledge by measuring orbital motions of double stars—that is, two-star systems that orbit around each other. Russ Genet is a leader in that field. The on-campus telescopes will accelerate that area of study at CUI.
“If someone is really into astronomical research they can learn how to operate the telescopes at Concordia and move on to the Manzanita telescope,” says Hoffert.
The grant requires CUI to contribute $100,000 and raise $150,000 over the next five years, bringing the total funding to $500,000.
The most amazing thing to Kenney is “the supernatural character” of how the right people came together with the right resources at the right time.
“Everything seemed perfectly poised to write this grant,” he says. “We had a very prayerful, Christ-centered approach to it. You realize that if you want to achieve at a certain level and do what God wants you to do, you can’t do it by yourself. You need the help and expertise and encouragement and vision of others to come alongside you. These are highly competitive grants, very challenging to get. If one little piece had been missing I am confident we would not have gotten the grant. But every person fit together and we as a Concordia community drew together to bring in outside resources, particularly TAI and Russ Genet.”
Hoffert emphasizes that the ultimate goal of studying astronomy at CUI is not just educational but spiritual.
“I’ve had students [at secular universities] say to me, ‘How can you claim to be a Christian and also claim to be a scientist? Isn’t there a contradiction there?’” Hoffert says. “I’ve said, ‘No, positively not. The more you learn about His creation, the closer you are to the Creator. You realize the incredible miracle and majesty that lies throughout the universe. All of that didn’t come about through an accident.’”
“There’s nothing more spectacular than getting a privileged view of God’s creative genius, either at the microscopic scale or the cosmological scale,” he says. “This kind of instrumentation and capability awes, it inspires, it invites you to discovery and lifts the human mind to new levels. That’s what we want to do with our students and faculty. Those opportunities inspire and equip young people to go out and discover on their own.”