‘Dark Energy’ Draws an Observatory’s Director From Hawaii to Texas

Ethan Tweedie

Taft Armandroff
February 17, 2014

Since 2006, Taft E. Armandroff has directed one of the world’s leading astronomical-research facilities, atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii with terrain that resembles that of Mars or the moon.

Primarily working from the small town of Waimea, Mr. Armandroff, 53, has led a team of astronomers at W.M. Keck Observatory, 14,000 feet above sea level at the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s largest island.

In May, Mr. Armandroff will leave Waimea and move to the Southwest, where he will become a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and director of its McDonald Observatory, 450 miles west of Austin, beneath some of the darkest night skies in the United States.

Though Keck is a global leader in the number of publications per telescope per year and in optical and infrared astronomy, McDonald Observatory has "a huge amount of potential," Mr. Armandroff says.

"I probably have one more big challenge that I can do in my career" as an observatory administrator, he says. "I love the Southwest. I love Hawaii, too, so it’s more about the astronomy than the physical location."

Before becoming Keck’s director, Mr. Armandroff worked for 19 years at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, in Tucson, Ariz., as associate director and director of the NOAO Gemini Science Center. As the author or co-author of 41 refereed journal articles and review papers, he is a respected research astronomer in dwarf spheroidal galaxies, stellar populations in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, globular clusters, the chemical evolution of galaxies, and dark matter.

Those credentials helped him land his new job in Texas, says Chris Sneden, a professor in Austin’s astronomy department and leader of the search committee. He says Mr. Armandroff will bring a "fresh perspective" to the Texas operation. Mr. Armandroff will succeed David Lambert, whom he calls the world expert in "stellar abundances"—what stars are made of and what processes caused them to contain certain elements.

Along with leading the McDonald Observatory’s strategic planning, Mr. Armandroff will take over several projects already in the works. One will be to lead the university’s engagement in the Giant Magellan Telescope, an international effort to construct a new instrument in Chile that astronomers say will have as much as 10 times the light-gathering capacity of today’s telescopes. It will be completed in about 2020.

McDonald Observatory, one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, teaching, and public education and outreach, sits atop Mount Locke, with facilities on Mount Fowlkes, in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. The complex includes the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, with a 9.2-meter mirror, among several other telescopes and instruments.

Mr. Armandroff will also be charged with completing McDonald’s Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment, the first major effort to probe dark energy, thought to be the cause of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. The experiment will collect data on at least a million galaxies that are nine billion to 11 billion light-years away, creating the largest map of the universe ever produced.

"Dark energy has been called the single-most-unsolved-problem in physics and astronomy today," Mr. Armandroff said.

Mr. Armandroff says he also looks forward to welcoming people who visit the observatory to "take in the night sky."

"That’s something I hope to continue," Mr. Armandroff says, "is the great work that has been done at McDonald in terms of engaging the public in everything that’s learned about our universe with modern astronomy."