Solar Observatory Goes Coast to Coast

Caltech's venerated solar observatory in the San Bernardino mountains is about to come under new management. The New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark will take over the Big Bear Solar Observatory on 1 July, NJIT announced yesterday. The change is expected to boost the number of researchers who use the facility and shift its emphasis from visible to infrared studies of the sun.

The brainchild of Caltech astrophysicist Hal Zirin, Big Bear has been a bastion of research on solar flares and related phenomena since the early 1970s. But in 1995, when Zirin announced his intent to retire as director of Big Bear, the observatory "was left with no heir apparent," says Caltech solar physicist Dale Gary, who adds that the university was more inclined to recruit astrophysicists in other disciplines. So Caltech shopped the facility around, announcing last spring that NJIT had won a competition to run Big Bear. The agreement between the two schools, which NJIT's board of trustees approved last week, calls for NJIT to take over all Big Bear's grants--now about $1.6 million a year--and scientific equipment and to lease the land and buildings from Caltech until 2048.

NJIT plans to make its presence felt quickly by retooling Big Bear with the latest infrared filters and cameras developed at the institute. "We'll be able to see deeper into the sun this way," says Big Bear's incoming director, NJIT astrophysicist Philip Goode.

NJIT has invited other organizations to join a users' consortium, and Caltech, Harvard, and the National Solar Observatory, among others, have expressed interest. "I suspect a lot wider variety of observations will happen," says Gary, who plans to move to New Jersey to help coordinate research between Big Bear and the Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California. The pressure is on NJIT, which is just now establishing a world-class presence in astronomy, "to maintain the impression of first-rate science," Gary says. "If they can, I think the overall change will be for the better."

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