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How green is your telescope? January 23, 2009

Posted by Sarah in science.
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A promiment scientist at the University of Texas in Austin has pulled out of a major telescope project, SOFIA, because of his concerns about the environmental impact of the mission.  Prof. John Lacy felt he couldn’t support a project that excessivly harms the environment. SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a 2.5 m telescope that will fly high above the Earth’s surface on board a modified Boeing 747SP plane. Due for first (f)light in 2010, SOFIA will be able to detect radiation from mid-infrared to submillimetre wavelengths. Light at these energies is abosorbed by water molecules in the atmosphere, and by flying the telescope on a plane above much of the absorbing gas scientists can avoid those losses without having to launch a satellite into space, which is costly and difficult to upgrade or fix. The SOFIA plane is expected to fly four times a week, for up to 12 hours a time – so it’s easy to understand Lacy’s concerns.

The Texas media found out about Lacy’s withdrawal from the US-German project and ran a story about it – read it here.

It’s quite an unusual thing to hear in astronomy really, perhaps some people have decided to travel less, but quitting high-profile projects over environmental concerns is unusual. But then, SOFIA is an unusual project. I have a lot of respect for his decision and wonder about the kind of feedback he received.

It’s made me think about the environmental aspects of our science. Most obviously to me is the amount of international travel that seems to be involved in our work – I’m certainly no exception there and probably travel more than most. I decided I’d make a real effort in 2009 to avoid flying whenever possible, but I’m afraid I’ll still be clocking a lot of airmiles this year*. But beyond that, what is the environmental impact of astronomy? I know local history and ecology is studied extensively when new observatories are built, but is this monitored at all once the observatory is in operation? Many scientists are very excited about doing astronomy in Antarctica (see here, here), surely protecting the environment there that is already under strain from a warming climate should be a top concern?

I think generally astronomers are quite environmentally aware though – after all, many of us started out as enthusiastic teenage stargazers, and we certainly appreciate open space, quiet, and inky black skies.

Image credit: NASA

*so far so good though, no air travel in all of January!

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