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Astrophysics: Colorado Bound -- The Pierre Auger Project

In 2008, the world's largest array for detecting ultra-high energy cosmic rays -- the most energetic particles in the universe -- was completed in Argentina by the Pierre Auger Observatory.

Now the Observatory is hoping to build a new array in the northern hemisphere: a tremendous undertaking. To be based in Colorado, the array would consist of a network of 4400 tanks, each 12 feet in diameter, placed 1.4 miles apart to cover 8,000 square miles (20,000 square kilometers).

“As far as size goes, it’s really amazing,” says Angela Olinto, an astrophysicist who is part of that consortium, as well as a member of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. “You have to drive for hours to cross from one side to the other.”

Size, however, is only one key to its success; the network of tanks will also crisscross farms and ranches. This means scientists need more than ingenuity; also important is recruiting communities -- including farmers and ranchers more interested in agriculture than astrophysics -- to become partners in exploring the sky.

Olinto explains that scientists are keenly aware of the importance of the public perception of their project. “We want the people to love our tanks,” she says, who helped select the Colorado site. “Our hope is to make them certainly interested in why we are doing this and the whole big picture of why does it matter.”

To earn this trust, the scientists are building on the ways the array in Argentina -- Auger South -- was successfully integrated and continues to be a good neighbor. For instance, in Malargue, Argentina, the Auger collaboration hosts an annual science fair and participates in a local parade. Visiting scientists give talks in the community, and children have helped name the tanks.

In Colorado, along with organizing and participating in a range of community meetings, scientists have set up tanks at community centers around southeastern Colorado so farmers and ranchers could actually see what the scientists plan to build. This way “they can kick it and they can see that it is smooth and it won’t hurt their livestock,” says John Harton, an Auger Observatory scientist at Colorado State University who serves as a liaison with the local community. “The more people know about it and the more they understand, the more they are positive about our project.”

Because of the economic opportunities the observatory will create in the area, a southeastern Colorado economic development corporation paid the way for some county commissioners and a local newspaper reporter to travel to Argentina. “They got personal experience with how we operate,” Harton explains.

The project’s proposal is currently under review by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Around a third of the observatory’s $125 million budget is expected from the U.S., and the remainder from international collaborators.

ABOUT THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: Dedicated to the advancement of science for the benefit of humanity, The Kavli Foundation supports scientific research, honors scientific achievement, and promotes public understanding of scientists and their work.

James Cohen | Newswise Science News
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