Washburn Astronomical Laboratories Established

Feb 12, 2013

by Barb Sanford, Development Specialist, UW-Madison Astronomy Department

A new chapter is about to be written in the annals of the Astronomy Department’s significant contributions to astronomical instrumentation. Last summer, department faculty and scientists voted to formally establish the Washburn Astronomical Laboratories, a new organization within the department dedicated to the development and implementation of astronomical instrumentation.

For five decades, the Space Astronomy Lab has had a distinguished and successful history of instrument development for satellites, rockets and space shuttle experiments. In recent years, the focus of many instrumentation projects has shifted more to ground-based astronomical instruments, many of which enhance the power of the department’s observing facilities. This shift pointed to a new departmental organization—the Washburn Astronomical Laboratories. This name pays tribute to astronomy’s historic beginnings at the University of Wisconsin.

“The Washburn Astronomical Laboratories will provide the continuing foundation for a vital and internationally recognized instrument development program within the department,” says Professor Bob Mathieu.

The Laboratories’ mission is to increase the department’s scientific productivity and broaden its educational impact. It will be a focal point to increase the breadth and depth of connections between the department’s astronomical research and instrumentation programs; engage a larger percentage of the department in the scientific conception and productivity of our instruments; and help to strengthen the overall level of scientific discourse within the department.

“The department thanks the College of Letters & Science—especially Dean Gary Sandefur and Associate Dean Eric Wilcots—for supporting our vision of the Washburn Astronomical Laboratories,” says Department Chair Jay Gallagher. “The College guided us in designing its formal framework and accounting structure and has made a significant financial commitment to the Laboratories staff. This commitment is crucial for maintaining a talented and experienced technical staff to execute current projects and to propose the next innovative ideas. It is an important part of the most successful astronomical instrumentation programs at academic institutions around the country, and a necessary step in keeping UW-Madison among them.”

“The flexibility of the funding from the College, which is not tied to a particular grant or project, enables creativity within the group. It allows the staff to spend time planning for the future by doing feasibility studies of new instrument ideas and writing proposals to fund them. This is a very important step forward,” says scientist Marsha Wolf, PI for RSS-NIR.

Current astronomy projects in progress by the Laboratories’ staff include the Robert Stobie Spectrograph Near Infrared Arm (RSS-NIR) for the 11-meter Southern African Large Telescope (SALT); two new fiber integral field units (IFUs) for spatially resolved spectroscopy on the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope (Hexpak and Gradpak); IFU prototypes and automated fiber bundle testers for MaNGA, a spatially resolved spectroscopic survey follow-up to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey at Apache Point Observatory; and the longstanding Star Tracker program for NASA rocket experiments.

The creation of the Washburn Astronomical Laboratories has been a multi-year endeavor, and many department members have contributed in important ways. “The creation of the Laboratories is only the beginning,” says Mathieu. “I am confident that our future colleagues will recognize the work and the accomplishments of Wash Labs still to come as important contributions to our distinguished history of astronomical instrumentation and discoveries begun at the Washburn Observatory.”

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