Lick Observatory receives $1 million gift from Google Inc.

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The University of California’s Lick Observatory has received $1 million as a gift from Google.

$500,000 of the funds have already been funneled into the observatory’s general expenses, with another $500,000 to be donated this year — on top of the annual $1.5 million provided by the UC Office of the President, according to UC Berkeley astronomy professor Alex Filippenko.

“Lick Observatory has been making important discoveries while training generations of scientists for more than 100 years,” said Chris DiBona, director of open source and scientific outreach for Google, in an email. “Google is proud to support their efforts in 2015 to bring hands-on astronomical experiences to students and the public.”

In September 2013, the university announced a controversial decision to withdraw its funds from the observatory, with plans to refer the resources to newer facilities such as the Thirty Meter Telescope. The university revoked its decision in November of last year, however, mitigating concerns that the observatory would have to transition into self-support, with help from private donors.

To Filippenko, Google’s donation reflects the corporation’s understanding of the importance of providing students with hands-on research experience that could be invaluable for careers in science and technology.

“I like to think of astronomy as a ‘gateway science,’ ” Filippenko said in an email. “Kids get interested in the cosmos, but most of them end up pursuing fields that are more immediately beneficial to society, such as applied physics, engineering, and computers.”

Established in 1888, Lick stands high on the summit of Mount Hamilton near San Jose with its seven telescopes, including the 3-meter Shane and 1-meter Nickel telescopes. Currently, the observatory has several projects that the gift will help improve.

For instance, the funds will help pay for hiring another operator at the observatory’s Shane reflecting telescope, which would open the telescope on all nights of the year for researchers.

FINALlick.sharonliuThe gift will also aid the observatory’s research in developing the technique of adaptive optics, whereby the effects of turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere are compensated by reflecting starlight off a deformable mirror, which can generate images through a 3-meter telescope that are as sharp as those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Filippenko said any improvements in this technique can be transferred to bigger telescopes, such as the 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

Moreover, the donation will provide a source of unrestricted funds, spread over two years, that will go toward the observatory’s general expenses, though the observatory is still seeking to establish a permanent endowment to keep its institution financially secure.

“Google’s support brings credibility to our efforts — a stamp of approval from a major corporation, opening the doors to future private and corporate support,” Filippenko said.

Lick Observatory recently received $350,000 in combined grants from the Heising-Simons Foundation and donors Bill and Marina Kast, which will be used to upgrade the Kast Double Spectrograph on the 3-meter telescope that observes faint celestial objects such as supernovae.

Filippenko said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Lick’s future, with the university’s recent overturning of its original decision to decrease Lick’s funding incrementally until 2018, deciding instead to provide the observatory “partial support.”

“This commitment, plus Google’s corporate support, should help inspire individuals, foundations and companies to also help fund Lick,” Filippenko said.

Robert Tooke covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.