Hopkins pulls out of project It lacks $15 million for Chile telescope

April 03, 1991|By Luther Young Patricia Meisol of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

Johns Hopkins University announced yesterday that it is withdrawing from a project to build a major new telescope in Chile, a move described by a faculty researcher as a "setback" to ambitious growth plans for astronomy at Hopkins.

The university, citing an inability to raise $15 million, will officially end its participation in the Magellan Telescope project on June 30, five years after joining a consortium to build and operate the huge 315-inch telescope at Las Campanas, Chile.

"It was understood . . . that Hopkins' participation was contingent upon having donors step forward to cover our share of the enormous costs of construction," said Lloyd Armstrong Jr., dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. "That has not happened."

The $15 million represents the university's share of construction costs and was due over a four-year period beginning in July 1992. The University of Arizona -- the consortium member responsible for crafting the telescope mirror -- also owes $15 million.

And the remainder of the $60 million total cost is to be funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which operates four telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in the foothills of the Andes.

"We deeply regret Hopkins' decision to resign from the project," said Maxine F. Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution. "But we will proceed with plans to build the telescope and have it operating within this decade."

The midstream pullout from the prestigious astronomy project represents the single biggest lost opportunity at Johns Hopkins since the university found itself facing major budget shortfalls three years ago.

Hardest hit has been the School of Arts and Sciences, whose multimillion-dollar projected deficits are being paid for in part by a controversial tax on the School of Medicine and the School of Hygiene and Public Health.

And -- despite raising $644 million in a highly successful six-year campaign that ended in April 1990 -- the university has been saddled with ailing investments, including the Peabody Conservatory of Music, which has cost Hopkins $20 million in rescue funds in the past decade.

But the Department of Physics and Astronomy has benefited from a major push by the administration to enhance its stature, primarily in space astronomy. One of the fruits of that effort was the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, successfully flown aboard the space shuttle.

It was a coup for Johns Hopkins to land the on-campus Space Telescope Science Institute, NASA's center for astronomy programs with the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, and last spring saw the dedication of a new $37 million building for the department.

"We've been trying to leap forward in the last decade, to become one of the major centers in the world," said J. Calvin Walker, chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. "Ground-based astronomy was an area we really wanted to build up in."

Magellan will be one of a few large telescopes on Earth, and astronomers compete vigorously for observing time. By assuming 25 percent of the cost of the Magellan Telescope project, Hopkins guaranteed its scientists a quarter of the observatory's viewing opportunities.

And its mirror will be the largest single-piece mirror ever built, a technological marvel scheduled to take shape under the eye of Roger Angel, the University of Arizona glass wizard whose spin-casting method of crafting telescope mirrors is revolutionizing the field.

"It's a serious setback. Hopefully, we'll find some way to survive it," said Hopkins astronomy Professor Arthur F. Davidsen, who led the team that built HUT.

Dr. Davidsen added that the university spent as much as $1 million on planning the Magellan project.

Dr. Walker said the department's "intention to become one of the top four or five in the country would have been greatly aided by the successful completion of this project. It's very sad for us. It obviously makes it harder, not impossible."

Hopkins' astronomers will have to "work on alternative arrangements for obtaining the ground-based observations they need," said Dean Armstrong. He encouraged them "to investigate possibilities for future Hopkins participation in smaller optical telescope projects."

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