By Courtney Holden, For the Camera
Posted: 04/26/2011 12:22:58 PM MDT

The University of Colorado has been named one of two finalists to host the headquarters for the National Solar Observatory, a ground-based scientific research program studying solar physics and space weather.

The university is vying against the University of Alabama-Huntsville, having already beaten out five other schools.

“We felt that Boulder’s environment was the ideal location from a scientific and technological standpoint,” said Mark Rast, an associate professor in CU’s Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences Department who served on the school’s proposal-writing team.

CU plans to implement a collaborative graduate education program if it is chosen to host the observatory. Rast said the new headquarters would be the primary science, instrument development and data analysis site.

“It’s really an opportunity to bring high-caliber scientists to the campus and then to integrate those efforts at the National Solar Observatory in with the education efforts at the university and really make it a premier site for research in solar physics,” Rast said.

The National Solar Observatory, managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy on behalf of the National Science Foundation, announced intentions to merge its two existing facilities in New Mexico and Arizona into a single worldwide Synoptic Observing Network early last year.

This new facility is expected to employ up to 70 scientists, engineers and staff with an annual payroll of about $20 million.

The National Solar Observatory gives scientists access to the world’s largest collection of optical and infrared solar telescopes and auxiliary instruments to observe detailed aspects of the sun.

“Historically, they have been the leader in the U.S. in ground-based solar observing,” said Mark Lankton, a project manager in space instruments who helped to write the CU proposal.

The search for a new site coincides with the construction of a $298 million ground-based solar observatory in Haleakala, Maui. Officially called the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, the machine is expected to send seven terabytes (or 7,000 gigabytes) of information to the observatory per day.

“(We’re) going to be getting huge piles of data,” Lankton said.

Lankton said that nearby institutions like the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Southwest Research Institute, among others, make CU a strong candidate.

“(We have the) highest concentration of solar scientists per square foot anywhere in the country,” he said. “We think that bringing the 60 or so National Solar Observatory staffers to town is just going to be a great augmentation to what’s already a great solar community.”

If the observatory moves to Boulder, Lankton estimated that about 20 science and engineering jobs may be available, as well as three or four new CU faculty positions. It is also likely to draw students to the university.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn from the best and probably get a job over at the National Solar Observatory headquarters working with data and working with research scientists,” said solar science veteran Ernie Hildner, who was the director of NOAA’s space weather prediction center for 19 years.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., agreed that Boulder is the right fit for the new facility. The Eldorado Springs resident publicly congratulated the university on Tuesday.

“If CU is selected, this facility will further nurture our future scientific talent by drawing top astronomers to our state and creating the opportunity for researchers to do groundbreaking work,” he said in a press release. “Plus, with 300 days of sunshine a year, there’s no better place than Colorado to host the National Solar Observatory.”

A final decision will be made by the end of the year, and if CU is offered the ability to host the observatory, the relocation process would likely begin in 2016, according to a press release from the American Astronomical Society.

CU-Boulder One of Two Finalists to Land National Solar Observatory HQ

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