A new scientific endeavor in Colorado Springs could help safeguard the nation’s electric grid, satellites, aircraft, spacecraft and radio transmissions and save hundreds of billions of dollars.
The first step is a biggie at 14,115 feet. It requires putting an observatory atop Pikes Peak – perhaps the only high-altitude site in the world with year-round access, a continual power source and hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
The mountaintop observatory has been a two-decade quest by Dimitri Klebe, founder of the Pikes Peak Observatory and space content specialist for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
But he and Robert Sallee, board chairman of the National Space Science & Technology Institute, remain undeterred.
“We understand that the process may take (another) three or more years, but we are willing to stay the course,” Sallee said last week.
The proposal has been lauded as a way to lure more people to the city’s most famous icon, to spur more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, to enlighten and entertain visitors and to complement the impending new Summit House.
But it could do so much more.
Scientists will be able to test instruments and learn how the sun affects the Earth.
When a big storm on the sun sends magnetized clouds through the atmosphere to Earth, for example, currents shoot through the ground and endanger everything from electrical grids to oil pipelines, said NSSTI board member Mark Miesch, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research High Altitude Observatory (HAO).
The potential effect is billions of dollars in losses. But hundreds of billions would be lost if a large solar storm hit, Miesch said.
Compare that with the $108 billion tab for Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in the U.S.
That’s why space weather – the HAO’s focus – is so important to the $1 billion-a-year satellite industry, utilities, airlines and others.
It’s so important that the federal government has created a National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan.
nd in June, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., introduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act to the Senate to better predict and mitigate the effects of space weather. Co-sponsors are U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Forecasts are critical. A solar flare can disrupt radio transmissions, which are very important to the military.
Flight attendants traveling between London and Colorado can build up significant amounts of radiation, but planes can dodge a solar storm by changing routes or flying lower.
“But you don’t want to do that unless you’re sure. It costs a lot of money,” Miesch said. “In order to improve forecasts, you need to increase understanding.”
And that’s a primary aim of the observatory, which would start with an 18-foot-diameter dome that can withstand 200 mph winds. It will be equipped with a viewing deck, a main 1-meter PlaneWave telescope for various kinds of research and a Lunt 6-inch H-Alpha Solar Telescope geared for sun studies. The entire installation would cover only 900 square feet.
Small telescopes, particularly with the sensors used today, collect more light than the older, bigger telescopes did, so they’re more efficient for their size, Klebe said.
They also fill a niche for research needing a big view of the sky, such as finding planets around other stars. That can’t be done through bigger telescopes, which only observe a smaller slice of sky, he said.
The 1-meter telescope will be the largest in Colorado, and it will be used by Colorado College, the Air Force Academy, the University of Denver and the University of Colorado at Boulder, among other educational and scientific institutions. It will be the biggest telescope in the Air Force Academy’s international Falcon Telescope Network.
The solar telescope will be equipped with a camera, with images displayed in the Summit House, the city or on the Internet. And both scopes can be operated remotely.
Another instrument, an All Sky Visual and Infrared Analyzer, will record atmospheric conditions and phenomena, providing a 180-degree hemispheric perspective. A modified version of the instrument will identify smoke and ash particles in the atmosphere to help the Forest Service with swift response to wildfires.
The push will be to increase understanding not only among scientists, but also among students – including undergraduates from tribal colleges.
“We appreciate that Pikes Peak is a sacred space for Native Americans (including the Utes) and would not build anything there without their blessing,” Miesch said. “We want them to be a partner in this. We want to inspire individuals of all backgrounds to pursue science and technology careers.”
Construction of the observatory first requires obtaining a permit from the U.S. Forest Service. The observatory team will request a 15-year permit. An environmental impact statement also is needed, and the scientists would like to establish a private-government partnership to accomplish the EIS.
In 2019, the new Summit House is to be erected and the Army’s High Altitude Research Laboratory on the peak will be moved. The following summer, the original research lab will be demolished, the site prepared and the observatory installed, if all goes according to plan.
Use of that site for the observatory reduces impacts on the fragile permafrost and is scientifically advantageous in relation to prevailing winds.
The Pikes Peak Observatory is expected to greatly enhance the new Summit House’s destination value.
But tourism wasn’t the motive for Klebe, who incorporated the observatory as a nonprofit in 1997 with a group of astronomers, astronauts, engineers and educators.
As a researcher at the University of Denver, whose telescope on Mount Evans closes in winter, he saw Pikes Peak as the ideal site for infrared astronomy and education.
In addition to the observatory, the group plans to deploy mobile science labs to remote schools to advance science and technology education.
Its mission, in addition to advancing scientific research, is “to promote the understanding and enjoyment of the universe through education at all levels, media presentations, environmental studies, historical preservation, cultural exhibits and the expansion of tourism to benefit the community.”