Published: Sept. 30, 2011

The University of Colorado Boulder was selected today to host the headquarters for the National Solar Observatory, the nation's leading scientific research program in ground-based solar astronomy.

The National Solar Observatory, or 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, or 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 Bennet."

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," said Sture.

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 currently 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 at 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 located 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."



• The National Solar Observatory is the primary provider of key ground-based facilities to the United States solar science community to probe all aspects of the sun. The NSO is operated by the Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation for the benefit of the astronomical community.

• NSO's mission is to advance the understanding of the sun both as an astronomical object and the dominant external influence on Earth. The mission includes the operation of cutting-edge facilities and the continued development of advanced instrumentation to conduct solar research, education and outreach.

• NSO goals include understanding the mechanisms generating solar cycles, the relationships between the sun's interior, surface and outer envelope, and events like coronal heating, solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

• NSO currently has offices and observatories in Sunspot and at Sacramento Peak (the Dunn Solar Telescope) in New Mexico and in Tucson and at Kitt Peak (the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope) in Arizona.

• NSO also oversees a community-based research effort called the Global Oscillation Network Group, or GONG, a six-station network that uses helioseismology to continuously observe the sun's five-minute oscillations from California, Hawaii, Chile, the Canary Islands, India and Australia.

• NSO has begun work on the 4-meter Advanced Technology Solar Telescope that will be placed on the summit of Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii, taking the place of the two primary observing facilities in New Mexico and Arizona. The summit of Haleakala is 10,000 feet in altitude -- which is above one-third of Earth's atmosphere -- providing great clarity, dryness and air stillness for precise solar observations.

• AURA is a consortium of universities and other research institutions that operates world-class astronomical observatories. There are 38 U.S. institutions and seven international affiliates. In addition to NSO, AURA manages three other centers – the National Optical Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak, Ariz., and Cerra Tololo, Chile; the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore; and the AURA Observatory, a complex of Chilean observing facilities.

• The relocation of the NSO headquarters from New Mexico and Arizona to CU-Boulder is not expected to begin until 2016.

Image courtesy of NASA