Astronomy Past, Present and Future at Notre Dame

Author: Carol Schaal

The study of astronomy at Notre Dame got a boost in 1867 when French emperor Napoleon III gave Father Joseph Carrier, CSC, a 6-inch refraction lens, which was state-of-the art technology for the time. The lens is still in use at the University’s observatory in Nieuwland Science Hall.

But it’s no longer the big-lens-on-campus. A new two-and-a-half foot mirror lens soon will be placed in the Jordan Hall of Science, inaugurating a new era for the Notre Dame astrophysics program. The program’s 10 faculty members and hundreds of students will have handy access to distant galaxies without making the trip to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) observatory in Arizona.

“For me this will be very valuable,” says astrophysics Professor Peter Garnavich. “I will have time to do extended projects that I can’t do in just a week down in Arizona. And this is a great opportunity for our students to get some real experience observing.”

Astrophysics Professor Terrence Rettig is most responsible for Notre Dame owning a share of the LBT, the most powerful optical telescope in the world. He was regularly doing research at the Vatican telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona when he heard in 1996 about plans to build a state-of-the-art telescope right next door. He proposed that Notre Dame invest in the $120 million project. “It was pretty adventurous for the administration to become part of such a thing, but it’s really developed our astrophysics program,” he says.

Rettig visits the LBT regularly to study disks around stars — the concentrations of gas and dust that eventually form planets, comets and meteors.