The University of Arizona

Happy 90th Birthday, Steward Observatory

By Eric Swedlund, University Communications | June 14, 2013
The Steward Observatory is nestled in a lush grove of old trees directly behind the Sonett Space Sciences Building.
The Steward Observatory is nestled in a lush grove of old trees directly behind the Sonett Space Sciences Building.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the UA's Steward Observatory and the department of astronomy - the foundations for internationally renowned space science research at the University.

Steward Observatory in 1923.
Steward Observatory in 1923.

"We have the best location of any educational institution in America. The University ought to make itself famous with a telescope."

With those words, part of his long and persistent effort to bring a world-class observatory to the University of Arizona campus, pioneering astronomer Andrew Ellicott Douglass set forth his best argument.

Arriving at the UA in 1906 from the Lowell Observatory outside Flagstaff, Douglass sought almost immediately to take advantage of Tucson's dry climate and clear night skies, using his renowned 1910 Halley's Comet observations as proof of the region's unique potential. As he wrote in a 1908 guest editorial in the Arizona Daily Star, "Nothing advertises a climate better than a big telescope."

The paper's editors agreed: "The fame of its observatory would be greater than any other institution of like character in the United States. The atmospheric conditions are such as to demand recognition and consideration from the scientific men of all nations," according to a Feb. 6, 1910 editorial.

Douglass unsuccessfully lobbied the state Legislature for funds but in 1916 secured a $60,000 donation, at first anonymously from Oracle resident Lavinia Steward, in memory of her late husband Henry B. Steward. Construction on Steward Observatory began that year, and on April 23, 1923, the UA formally dedicated the facility, with its state-of-the art 36-inch reflecting telescope at last making Tucson an astronomer's paradise.

"Not only was this the first big donation (to the UA), it was the start of research at the University in a very real way," says Buell Jannuzi, current director of Steward Observatory and head of the astronomy department.

From those ambitious beginnings – the Steward telescope was nicknamed the "All-American" because it was the first astronomical telescope built using all American-made products – the observatory and astronomy department have branched out in all directions, to radio, X-ray and ultraviolet astronomy, adaptive optics, space-based telescopes and the renowned Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory, which constructs gigantic mirrors for the next generation of astronomy, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope.

"Douglass wanted more than just a major telescope for the University of Arizona; he wanted Steward Observatory to produce discoveries and to share them with the world. I think he would agree that his successors have continued to develop the quality of research we're producing, using technological innovations not as the end points, but as tools to further scientific discovery," Jannuzi says. "Our aspirations are the same as those of Douglass; we are just pursuing them with more modern tools."

Built on what was then the far east side of Tucson, Steward Observatory has been overtaken by campus expansion yet remains an iconic fixture of the UA, its white brick and dome now housing the 21-inch Raymond E. White Jr. Reflector telescope, used primarily for undergraduate education and public outreach, which has been a part of the observatory's mission since its dedication. The original 36-inch scope relocated to Kitt Peak in 1963 and remains in use by the Spacewatch Project.

Leadership for Steward Observatory has maintained a remarkable continuity, with just seven directors over its 90 years, including Peter A. Strittmatter, who served 37 years as director and led a remarkable period of growth and development.

"I think (Douglass) would agree the soul is still there in the observatory, and we're continuing the mission he set out for us," Jannuzi says, reflecting on what drew him to astronomy in the first place. "It's fun, like philosophers or theologians do, to think about the big questions. Often times we're working on some small part of a research project, but it's all part of a larger effort to understand the universe and how we relate to it."