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About OSU Astronomy

The Ohio State University has a long tradition of astronomy reaching back to the McMillin Observatory founded in 1896. In this genteel age, the astronomers were part of the College of Engineering, which felt the need for a practical course in astronomy for civil engineers. Endowed by Emerson McMillin, the observatory was located on the OSU Campus in Columbus near Mirror Lake, and equipped with a 12.5-inch Brashear refracting telescope with a mount built by Warner & Swasey. It was the largest research telescope in Ohio at the time. Instrumentation for this telescope included photographic cameras, a filar micrometer, and a custom Brashear spectroscope. In the hands of OSU's first astronomer, mathematics professor Henry Curwen Lord (1866-1925), the Brashear spectrograph measured radial velocities to a precision of 2 km/sec. An interesting History of the McMillin Observatory has been written by OSU alumnus Carl Wenning (now a lecturer in astronomy in the Physics Dept. at Illinois State University).

In 1931, Ohio Wesleyan University completed the construction of the Perkins Observatory with its 69-inch reflecting telescope, but the economic realities of the Great Depression made it clear that they would need assistance operating it as a scientific facility. At the same time, the McMillin telescope ceased to be useful as a research facility, given its small size and location in the middle of the growing city of Columbus. Perkins, located some 23 miles north of Columbus near Delaware Ohio, was relatively free of light pollution at the time, and its 69-inch telescope (then among the 5 largest in the world), offered vastly greater light-gathering power. Thus began a long partnership in astronomy between OSU and Ohio Wesleyan.

As the science of Astronomy was transformed into Astrophysics during the first half of the 20th century, the OSU Trustees decided to transfer the astronomy program to the Department of Physics in the College of the Arts & Sciences. The astronomy faculty was part of the Physics Department for 30 years from 1931 until 1961, when Astronomy was formally constituted as a separate department. The Astronomy Department moved into quarters above the Physics Department in Smith Laboratory in 1968 when the aging McMillin Hall was no longer habitable (the building was ultimately condemned and demolished in 1976).

By 1961, light pollution from the Columbus metropolitan area finally caught up with the Perkins Observatory, reducing its usefulness as a serious observing site. It was decided to move the 69-inch telescope to a new dark-sky site on Anderson Mesa near Flagstaff Arizona operated by the Lowell Observatory.  At the same time, the 69-inch mirror was replaced by a new 72-inch mirror obtained from the National Bureau of Standards. This three-way consortium of OWU, Lowell, and OSU operated the Perkins Telescope for 37 years from 1961 until 1998, with OSU contributing the state-of-the-art optical and infrared instrumentation that helped to make the 72-inch a remarkably productive research telescope. The old Perkins Observatory in Delaware has since acquired a 31-inch reflecting telescope donated by a wealthy amateur astronomy, and has successfully transformed itself into one of the leading centers for public education in astronomy in central Ohio.

Recognizing the need for modern astronomical facilities that would be available to all US astronomers (not just those at elite private institutions), OSU joined with six other universities in 1957 to found AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. AURA has since grown into one of the premier astronomical observatory systems in the world, responsible for operating the Kitt Peak and Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatories, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and the Gemini International Observatories on behalf of the US astronomical community.

In August 1998, we formally ended our 37-year old partnership with Ohio Wesleyan and Lowell, and became partners in the MDM Observatory on Kitt Peak, and became partners in the twin 8.4-meter Large Binocular Telescope project.  Also in that year we became founding members of the YALO consortium to operate the Yale 1-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo in Chile, a collaboration which later grew into the present SMARTS consortium that operates all of the small (under 4 meter) telescopes at CTIO.

While OSU no longer provides the primary financial support for the Perkins Observatory in Delaware, we will still maintain our close traditional ties with this institution, and are actively assisting them with their new educational mission. Our New Vistas lecture series and other, less formal public programs by OSU astronomers will continue uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

In Summer 1999 we moved from Smith Lab into expanded quarters in the renovated McPherson Lab, which provides our Imaging Sciences Laboratory with the large shops necessary for constructing large instruments for the Large Binocular Telescope.  We have grown into one of the leading builders of advanced astronomical instrumentation, including the twin MODS spectrographs for the LBT that began first science operations in 2011.

Our department has also grown with the founding of the Center for Cosmology and Astro-Particle Physics (CCAPP), a joint initiative of the Astronomy and Physics departments to to pursue research at the interface of cosmology, astrophysics, and high energy physics.  This has brought our department into research initiatives in dark energy (DES), and multi-messenger astro-particle physics (GLAST, AUGER, and ANITA).

Entering the 21st century, we are members of the SDSS and DES collaborations, and continue to actively build our research capabilities at the MDM and LBT observatories. OSU is now one of the world's leading builders of advanced astronomical instrumentation, with recent projects including a pair of multi-object spectrographs for the Kitt Peak and CTIO 4-meter telescopes (KOSMOS), and wide-field imaging cameras for the Korean Microlensing Telescope network.  Our research activities have expanded into the search for extrasolar planetary systems, particularly the MicroFUN network of amateur and professional astronomers that to date have discovered nearly a dozen planetary systems, including the first solar-system analog.